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.
“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.”
I can’t think of a more irresponsible statement to make. Berg’s “compelling evidence” is simply repackaged propaganda from Berlinger and Sinofsky, with a new spin. She hasn’t “discovered” anything. Most of this “evidence” is in the form of affidavits, and their sources are questionable. Michael Carson, the one with the “big heart” who ratted out Jason Baldwin (Carson said Baldwin confessed to him in the lockup while Baldwin was awaiting trial), suddenly resurfaces to say that he was lying (he passed a polygraph prior to testifying against Baldwin). Hobbs’s neighbors from 20 years ago (she was 13 at the time) swears that she saw Hobbs with the children on the night they were murdered, this despite Hobbs saying he hadn’t seen his stepson all day. Problem is, she has no verifiable frame of reference which would prove that she saw the boys on May 5, 1993, or some other Wednesday. She claims that she knows it was that day because she saw Ryan Clark (Christopher Byer’s half-brother)in school the following day, and she told him that she had seen Christopher the night before, and that she told him to go home. The problem is that it is highly unlikely that Ryan was in school on Thursday May 5. His 8-year-old brother had been missing all night, and Ryan had been searching the woods looking for him until midnight.
There are many other inconsistencies in this story. Bottom line: Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley have fooled an awful lot of people.
Greg C. Day
Author “Untying the Knot: John Mark Byers and the West Memphis Three.”