Two things first. Number one: the compelling documentary “West of Memphis” probably wouldn’t exist if not for the three previous “Paradise Lost” films on the same subject that Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky made for HBO. The much bigger number two: it’s even likelier that, without those documentaries, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley would still be stewing in prison, and Damien Echols, the third member of the so-called West Memphis Three, would be dead by lethal injection in the state of Arkansas.
That said (coming from a strong partisan of the HBO films), this miscarriage of justice that began in 1993 and stretched on for 18 years is so knotty that “West of Memphis” is able to bring new angles to the story. Too bad it also had to bring so many celebrities along for the ride.
The movie begins with the logo for Wingnut Films, most closely associated with the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” movies. But “Memphis” takes us a long way from the world of fantasy — or, you might say, it explores an alternative kind of horrible fantasy gone terribly wrong.
Produced by “LOTR” impresarios Peter Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh, “Memphis” documents the bandwagon support for the West Memphis Three that was ginned up by the HBO films. Jackson appears onscreen, and so do Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp, Patti Smith and Dixie Chicks anchor Natalie Maines. Of them all, only Maines winds up having a crucial role in the proceedings
But first I should backtrack … which is something “West of Memphis” could have done a little bit more itself in explaining this complicated story. In 1993, three seven-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, disappeared one afternoon and were found the next day stripped naked, hog-tied with their own shoelaces and drowned in a ditch. Marks on their bodies convinced the local police department that it was a ritualistic, satanic-cult killing.
You may have to take a moment and cast your mind back in time to recall this peculiarly American wave of insanity in the late 1980s and early ’90s. “The X-Files” was on television, but even crazier conspiracies than the ones found in that show turned up in newspaper headlines. Satanic cults! Recovered memories! Toddlers barely out of their diapers were coaxed by possibly well-meaning shrinks into delivering tales of secret rooms, underground zoos, “bad touching” and cannibalism — and jurors believed them. I’ll refer you to a documentary about another jaw-dropping case, first broadcast by PBS’s “Frontline,” called “Innocence Lost,” about a North Carolina day-care center mired in this sort of life-derailing lunacy.
I mean, really. What were people thinking?
That brand of craziness bloomed one of its fullest flowers in West Memphis in the frantic days after the discovery of the three dead boys. Three teenagers were fingered and hustled down to the police station, distinguished mainly by their outsider status as white-trash loners fond of heavy-metal music. And they were promptly railroaded.
The prosecution built its case on coerced testimony from one of the defendants, who is mildly retarded, and accusations of satanism from two young people who were drugged out of their skulls at the time (and who use this documentary as a chance to recant and apologize). Meanwhile, classmates who provided solid alibis for the accused teens or crucial information about the whereabouts (suspicious) of one of the victim’s parents on the evening of the murders were never allowed to testify.
It’s true that the facts in any case are never as clear-cut as you might like. But two decades after the killings, and after the unearthing of a mountain of exculpatory evidence, it’s startling to see the epic attempts that members of the prosecution make in the new film to claim they acted in good faith.
More time than necessary is spent hanging out with celebrity fans of the accused, but, as mentioned, the Dixie Chicks lead singer becomes pivotal. Both this film and “Paradise Lost: Purgatory” (the final, Oscar-nominated docs of the trio by Berlinger and Sinofsky) make a very strong case for the guilt of the stepfather of one of the murdered boys. Actually, the second “Paradise Lost” film made a convincing case against another stepdad, ironically demonstrating just how easy it can be to rush to judgment. In a 180-degree turnaround from the past, in this movie that man is a loud supporter of the teenagers’ innocence.
Here, the other suspect stepfather files charges of defamation against Natalie Maines for slandering his good name. She didn’t. But his accusation allows her own lawyers to grill the man on the witness stand, opening up a whole huge, “gotcha” can of worms about his acts of rage and abuse in the past. This footage was also in the HBO film, but it’s still riveting.
After almost two decades, the case finally came to a conclusion less than two years ago — a bittersweet compromise that freed Baldwin, Misskelley and Echols (who comes out of prison with the Zen charisma of some of his movie-star pen pals). But their release is capped by a final pernicious twist of law: the case is now closed.
Those three boys are dead. Innocent people paid. The guilty one walked free. And probably still does.
“West of Memphis.” A documentary directed by Amy Berg. Rated R. 147 minutes. At UA/Regal Tara.