West of Memphis – film review by Ian JohnstonWest of Memphis
Director: Amy Berg
Writers: Billy McMillin, Amy Berg
Stars: Jason Baldwin, Damien Wayne Echols and Jessie Misskelley
Released 21st December 2012

Written and directed by Amy ‘Deliver Us From Evil’ Berg and produced by first time film makers Damien Echols and Lorri Davis, in collaboration with Peter ‘Lord of The Rings’ Jackson and Fran Walsh, featuring a hypnotic ambient soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, West of Memphis is an incredibly powerful and captivating documentary that charts and even positively influences an extraordinary saga. West of Memphis graphically outlines the facts of an appalling, still unsolved crime, the subsequent investigating police blunders, venal political opportunism and expediency, culminating in judicial acts of gross injustice.

7th May 1993. The murdered and apparently mutilated bodies of three, eight year old boys Christopher Byers, Steven Branch and Michael Moore are found in a creek in Robin Hood Hills, West Memphis, Arkansas. There is wild speculation, by various ‘experts’, that the slayings bare all the hallmarks of a ritual ‘satanic’ sex crime homicide. In June 1993 police arrest three local teenagers – Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley – who are charged with three counts of capital murder. During a highly unorthodox interrogation the mentally challenged Misskelley ‘confesses’ to the police that Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin killed Christopher Byers, Steven Branch and Michael Moore while he watched. The laid-back and sullen teenagers plead innocent at their hearing.

In January 1994, Misskelley trail begins and in February he is convicted of one count of first-degree murder and two of second-degree murder. In March, after a bizarre trial, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin are found guilty on three murder counts. Baldwin is sentenced to life imprisonment, while Eshols is sentenced to death.


The yawning flaws in the case draws much interest from the media and performers such as Henry Rollins and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, and a campaign to free ‘The Memphis 3’ begins to gather momentum. Yet even with this spotlight upon the case, and a retrial, the three young men continued to languish in jail for a further 18 years.

With great alacrity (the 146 minute film seems half that length) and comprehensive inspection Berg delineates the facts of the case, featuring interviews with family members of the murdered and the convicted, lawyers, policeman, suspects, Echols’s wife and champion Lorri Davis (who married him in prison during 1999) and Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley.  Through Berg’s efforts (she began filming West of Memphis in 2008), backed up by Jackson’s considerable financial clout (the director became involved in 2005, funding the defence investigation anonymously), the amount of conflicting evidence that is publicly available is systematically revealed.  What was presented to the jury in 1994 as the result of a satanic ritual slayings, with sexual organ mutilation, is exposed as probably having a far more prosaic origin. The new evidence was presented to Judge David Burnett, who had presided over the original West Memphis Three trial. Judge Burnett dismissed the new material as “not compelling.”

Berg’s film has all the pace, clarity, pathos and density of one of James Ellroy’s true crime reports for GQ. While Cave and Ellis’ score skilfully links the various characters, themes and locations of Berg’s documentary, West of Memphis is obviously underpinned with a strong moral conviction about the continuing injustice of the final outcome of the case in August 2011.

West Memphis does not really have a happy ending.  The children’s killer  (though the main suspect has recently been named in a highly reliable tip off to the authorities) is yet to be charged. Mother Pam Hobbs still grieves. Though free, Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley still have a triple homicide on their records. The case close is not closed on this incident by any means, but Berg’s unforgettable documentary will surely continue to cause discomfort and fear to those who have shamelessly profited from it politically and in their careers.

West of Memphis is a coruscating example of consummate documentary filmmaking, which deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible. Don’t miss it.

West of Memphis is released theatrically on 21st December 2012, distributed by Sony Pictures Releasing.

All words by Ian Johnston. More reviews by Ian on Louder Than War can be read here.

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