With many viewers familiar with the West Memphis Three saga thanks to the Paradise Lost trilogy, retracing the material seems redundant. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky did a thorough job covering the story over the course of 16 years and in many regards is the tale’s definitive take. Considering its reverence, arguably one of the most important documentary series, it’s all the more impressive that Amy Berg’s West of Memphis is so captivating. A great deal of that magnetism has to do with the material itself, but the filmmaking in this latest telling is certainly no slouch and a fine work in its own regard.
While the Paradise Lost films extensively involved the case’s three wrongfully imprisoned young men, West of Memphis takes more of an outsider’s approach. Speaking with many of the same family members, attorneys, and celebrity activists, Berg recounts how Arkansas teens Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley were convicted in 1994 of murdering three local boys. Accused of satanic leanings and the victims of a questionable legal system, they never stood a chance but refused to give up hope that their innocence would one day be honored. As with her predecessors, Berg successfully taps into the injustice of the case and through a meticulous, slow-burning approach, presents it with a surprising freshness.
Aiding in the distinction are scenes that make the prosecution and the Arkansas court system at large look increasingly suspect. Though the state’s attorneys and expert witnesses claimed that knives were used to mutilate the victims, numerous sources point out that the creek where the corpses were found is saturated with snapping turtles. To illustrate the likelihood of reptilian involvement, Berg consults a turtle breeder who goes above and beyond to show that the animals’ preference for soft flesh lines up with the children’s compromised body parts. In this memorable sequence, the breeder places a pig carcass into a tank of hungry snappers as they behave precisely as he predicted, then allows a turtle to bite him on the arm to produce markings that match those on the young boys. The images are at once shocking and illuminating, and just the sort of clear evidence needed to hammer the point home.
Further carving its own niche in WM3 lore, West of Memphis delves deeper into the possibility that Terry Hobbs, one of the slain boys’ step-father, is the actual killer. Thanks to new information that’s come forward since the third Paradise Lost film, Berg offers the most compelling evidence to date toward this conclusion and ends her work in a truly chilling manner. It’s moments like these that make her film a worthwhile standalone, and though it still doesn’t break that much new ground, another perspective is nonetheless welcome.
Rated R for disturbing violent content and some language.
West of Memphis is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.