West of Memphis
Directed by Amy Berg
Writers: Billy McMillin, Amy Berg
Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin
How long is West of Memphis? 147 minutes.
What is West of Memphis rated? R for disturbing violent content and some language.
In May of 1994, in West Memphis, Arkansas, three 8-year-old boys were brutally murdered and dumped in a river. Their tiny bodies were hog-tied with shoelaces and apparently sexually mutilated. It was a vicious, unspeakable crime, and one that called for action. Indeed, the citizens of West Memphis, the parents of the murdered children, and most devastatingly, the Arkansas law enforcement and judicial system took action. Eighteen-year-old Damien Echols, sixteen-year-old Jason Baldwin, and seventeen-year-old Jessie Misskelley were convicted of the crimes based on Misskelley’s confession. Echols, the only one over eighteen, was sentenced to death. Our essential, human urge to compartmentalize, to make sense of the insensible, resulted in a disastrous witch hunt.
Damien Echols was a “strange” young man. His long hair was dyed jet black, contrasting with his pallid skin and piercing eyes. He wore black and scribbled childish graffiti under overpasses, some of it punctuated with pentagrams. Echols considered himself Pagan. He and Baldwin kept journals, wrote obscure poetry, sketched grotesque imagery across the blue lines. They listened to Metallica. They didn’t have many friends. These things made them odd, pegged them as weirdoes. In the eyes of the public, it also made them murderers.
In 1995, an episode of “The X-Files” (“Die Hand die Verletzt”) tackled the zeitgeist of that time: regression therapy, devil worship, and murderous Satanic cults. Cautionary literature and videos circulated to law enforcement across the country, decrying a pandemic of Satanism. Outside Mulder and Scully’s exploits, though, there is virtually no evidence of any rash of Satanic cults; not a thing to indicate that teenagers across America were engaging in ritual sex and murder. But the West Memphis Three’s gothic affectation and lack of love for Jesus Christ made them simple scapegoats. Weird clothes and the depressive journaling of a miserable teen allowed a flawed justice system to pin the horrific crimes on three innocent kids.
In 1996, HBO aired a documentary based on the case, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. Filmmakers revealed vital truths in the 2000 and 2011 follow-up films, truths the Arkansas justice system refused to examine. The first kicker of many was that the boy who confessed to the crime, Jessie Misskelley, was (and is) borderline mentally handicapped. When his confession leaked, it became clear his interrogation was leading and coercive. As more persons of interest came out of the woodwork, mugging for the cameras and putting on a show, the case drew national attention. In particular, John Mark Byers, the adoptive father of victim Chris Byers, staged effigies of the convicted and stated his baby had been sacrificed to Satan. For the first few years after the conviction, it appeared Byers, a theatrical, dramatically vengeful man, had committed the crime and elaborately exaggerated his intense grief and rage for the sake of the cameras. The films garnered a response from some very important people. Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, Metallica (whose music is featured in all of the movies, though they’re notoriously prickly about music rights and have prosecuted fans for illegal downloading), Patti Smith, The Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines, Henry Rollins, Peter Jackson, and Jackson’s wife Fran Walsh took up the cause.
In 2011, Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley were released from prison after spending half their lives behind bars. This year, Jackson’s Wingnut Films released West of Memphis, which will probably be the final film about the case. I’ve been putting off writing the review for West of Memphis, which I saw at the Virginia Film Festival in early November, because the subject matter surrounding the West Memphis Three case and trial is harrowing. Frankly, in the wake of recent events, I’d rather not spend too much time thinking about little dead kids and strange teenage murderers.
West of Memphis reflects Jackson’s involvement in the case; he and Fran Walsh wrote to Echols in prison beginning in 2005 and contributed heavily to legal costs. Jackson also claims he helped to obtain the services of the FBI’s most famed profiler, John Douglas, upon whom The Silence of the Lambs’ character Jack Crawford was based. (It was Douglas whose encyclopedic knowledge of criminal minds eventually exonerated John Mark Byers in the eyes of the public. Byers, who in the years between 2000 and 2011 changed his tune completely about the identity of the killers, wasn’t interviewed by the crew for West of Memphis.) Jackson, a savvy and well-rounded filmmaker, also recognized the inherent value in the first docs. What happened, over the course of seventeen years, is basically a crowd-sourced criminal investigation. The Paradise Lost films are a beacon, a concrete example of the way film interacts with the world around it and vice-versa. Had it not been for the filmmakers’ concise depiction of the case’s mishandling, Echols would be dead and the other two still in prison. The WM3 case is extremely important for both justice (organizations like The Innocence Project have thrived – the WM3 prove it isn’t always criminals behind bars) and film culture (film as art, film as tool, film as message – the four movies about WM3 are all of the above). Most important, it is one way in which We the People have made a tangible difference; one way, with the help of the filmic medium, we’ve helped to stage a small revolt against an inherently flawed system.
West of Memphis is strident and defamatory (which isn’t a bad thing). Director Amy Berg (whose brilliant Deliver Us From Evil was nominated for an Oscar in 2010) sat a variety of people from all across the spectrum in front of her camera. Charismatic musicians like Rollins stare straight out of the screen, telling you matter-of-factly that the handling of this case was total bullshit. Jackson himself shows up in a number of scenes, in one of which he speaks earnestly about people in power crapping on those who don’t have any. Echols, whose countenance in the Paradise Lost movies was nearly saintly, is finally allowed to say, with a hint of vicious anger in his voice, that lead West Memphis investigator Gary Gitchell put them in prison as a political power move.
The film doesn’t offer a lot of new evidence – Paradise Lost 3 covers most of the basics: the police never really interviewed Michael Moore’s stepfather Terry Hobbs, a man who was known to beat his stepson and his wife; they failed to interview multiple neighbors who had seen Hobbs with the boys shortly before they died; they failed to account for the fact that his alibis on the night of the murder just plain don’t stand up. Pam Hobbs, Moore’s mother, was interviewed exclusively for West of Memphis, bringing forth terrifying stories of her husband’s rages. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, investigators mention while practically rolling their eyes that the wounds found on the bodies were made post-mortem, almost surely by turtles. A snapping turtle wrangler allows a turtle to bite him onscreen, and the wound leaves a mark identical to those found on the boys. (This scene is jarring and sensational, but probably the best way to make the point.) Amanda Hobbs, Terry Hobbs’s daughter and Michael Moore’s sister, appears in a series of uncomfortable therapy visits. She’s still a teenager, she no longer has custody of her kids, and she has a very obvious drug problem. It’s discouraging, to say the least, to imagine that the filmmakers probably paid her to vent her issues (sexual abuse at the hands of her father, a fear of him that caused her to start doing drugs) on camera.
The filmmakers clashed with HBO and the crew behind Paradise Lost 3 – according to a New York Times piece, Wingnut decreed that Pam Hobbs was not legally permitted to talk to the PL3 crew. Some money changed hands for the sake of a good movie – and the credits of Paradise Lost 3 also note that some participants were offered honoraria for their involvement. The people of West Memphis are what Echols refers to repeatedly over the course of the movies as “poor white trash.” Many of them have criminal records, some of them have nearly indecipherable accents, and most of them are extremely poor. Of course the participants would accept honoraria. It’s par for the course – but unfortunate and sadly sketchy nonetheless.
The West Memphis 3 were released in 2011 because the state accepted the Alford Plea, which is an official admission of guilt while maintaining innocence. (What? You ask. Here’s the Wikipedia.) Basically, the state of Arkansas refuses to admit it convicted innocent boys of horrendous crimes, but deigned, after seventeen years, to let the supposed killers out to roam the streets. (The real killer, by all accounts, is also free.) Echols and his wife Lorri Davis (they were married in a Buddhist ceremony at the prison in 1999 while Echols was still on death row) lived in New York City at the time of filming and “never plan to return to Arkansas.”
West of Memphis is a clamorous, sometimes upbeat (at least, as upbeat as you can be about this case) finale. Jackson’s Hollywood connections make for a different, crisper, bigger-budget film experience than the previous films. Berg is a great director, totally unafraid to stick her nose in uncomfortable spaces and probe at open wounds (her works aren’t as prickly as documentarian Michael Moore’s, but I imagine the two of them would get along well). The end result is pleasing, sad, horrifying, and ultimately satisfying.
We’re living in strange times (she wrote, knowing we’re always living in strange times). A few weeks ago, a 20-year old man, a well-to-do, intelligent, “odd” kid walked into an elementary school and shot 20 children and 6 adults before taking his own life. He was, by all accounts, troubled and overlooked. His style of dress and interactions ran toward the other end of the high school spectrum from Damien Echols – he wore a pocket protector, carried a briefcase, and attended LAN parties. Since he also murdered his mother – from all accounts the only person in close contact with him recently – we’ll never know why he committed this inhuman, unspeakable act. And in the end it doesn’t matter.
Shortly after the shootings, a mother of a child with mental issues posted a heartbreaking blog entry about demonizing the previously unknown mother’s parenting skills, disparaging our society’s disinterest in dealing with mental health problems, and calling for immediate alteration of gun laws. Had Adam Lanza lived, had he not murdered his mother, had he been able to make a statement about why, would we be satisfied by his incarceration? Would we feel more restful knowing his ostensible reasons for committing this act of evil? Would we be able to look at the face of a murderer in a courtroom, as we did with the Aurora shooter, and take heart that he’s completely insane? Could we rest easier knowing the system was now responsible for him? Watching the judicial system at work, knowing we have ways to deal with those who commit crimes against humanity, is powerfully alluring.
In the aftermath of an unspeakable tragedy, we struggled to make sense of it as immediately as possible – and many media outlets pegged the wrong kid as the murderer on the afternoon of the shootings. As the police and the media revealed more evidence, people popped out of the woodwork, sneering that Lanza had been a “weird kid” for as long as his classmates could remember; that this wasn’t his first rodeo with “odd behavior.” Most damning, I think, was the notion, whether explicit or implicit, that Lanza was autistic, had Aspberger’s, or was afflicted with a personality disorder. It’s one more set of stigma to apply to that weird kid in the hallway, the one scuttling anxiously or striding defiantly between classes, avoiding or provoking peers’ wrath.
The West Memphis 3 case and its subsequent documentaries offer a powerful message to us in the aftermath of a massive tragedy that aches like a national wound. Hysteria, rage, and grief are a poisonous combination. Our legal system and political system are inextricably linked, and change can only come from the ground up. The Paradise Lost movies crowd sourced a criminal investigation against the wishes of the federal government. Likewise, a change to our flawed system, the one that financially connects the NRA to corrupt politicians, the one that offers a staggering 20 beds in mental wards to every 100,000 Americans, is in our hands. Jackson, Berg, and the HBO filmmakers have a single message for us, and it feels particularly significant as we look back on 2012: don’t just sit there and watch, don’t stew in your fear and anger. We all have the power to change lives, and to save them. Three innocent men are free because of it – and as we mourn the victims of Newtown (and we are still mourning, albeit loudly and angrily), we can take heart in the fact that we’re capable of fashioning a sea change in a faulty system, and perhaps preventing another heart-rending crime like this. (Just how best to do so, though, is a topic for another article.)