Film Review: West of Memphis (Sony Pictures Classics)



by David Ashley



103In 1996 HBO released a documentary called Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills made by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. The film detailed the shocking miscarriage of justice made by local law enforcement in West Memphis, AR regarding the incarceration of three teenage boys who were charged with the murder of three pre-teen boys. The accused were not guilty of the murders and would each remain imprisoned for almost twenty years. The efforts of Berlinger and Sinofsky were the first rumblings of hope for the now notorious West Memphis Three and the pair would make two sequel documentaries that continued to follow the efforts of a movement which eventually grew to save the lives of Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin, the final documentary coming out only last year and which received a bare level of respect from the Academy in the form of an Oscar nom (2011’s winner would be a doc about a small-town football coach and his team of underdogs).  The final shot of Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory is a newspaper headline which reads “3 Walk Free” and is probably the happiest ending I have ever seen in a film.  Berlinger and Sinofsky are heroes. I have only ever heard of a single instance in which a documentary film influenced a real trial and got a man off death row, and this was Errol Morris‘s The Thin Blue Line.

Just thank heaven for cameras, for the ability to objectively capture the news and spread it to everybody.  It is a privilege easily misused, but silence and isolation are killers.  I’ve noted in the past that celebrity involvement is the best possible thing that can happen in cases of injustice – when dollars, resources and connections can be most efficiently applied; without celebrity involvement, the WM3 might still be imprisoned to this day. Who do we have to thank?  Largely two of the producers of West of Memphis, a pair you probably have never heard of: Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh (of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy).  Jackson had seen Berlinger and Sinofsky’s documentaries and been moved to offer any assistance he could to those fighting to free the WM3.  Things become very exciting when Jackson energizes a highly professional investigation into the murders, hiring six or seven varieties of nationally renowned experts (for plenty of healthy discussion), heading it up with former FBI profiler John Douglas, funding DNA testing.  I find it humorous that I have reason to speak so positively about the man after execrating his latest effort in my recent review of The Hobbit.  Don’t get me wrong – Jackson’s efforts have elevated his status to heroic as he and Walsh are largely responsible for the existence and heavy promotion of West of Memphis.

Other celebrities present who were passionately moved by the plight of the WM3 include Henry Rollins (“That could’ve been me.”), Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, and the Dixie Chicks, whose involvement took a perverse turn when they were sued for defamation by Terry Hobbs, father of one of the slain children, after band member Natalie Maines made a comment at a 2007 concert which implied Hobbs was guilty of the murder. Much of West of Memphis is devoted to the Curious Case of Terry Hobbs.  You see, in Berlinger’s third documentary plenty of circumstantial evidence was bolstered by some brand new DNA evidence which not only helped to further absolve the jailed trio, but which placed a penetrating spotlight onto Terry Hobbs himself.  Just taking one look at his drug-addicted, emotionally unstable daughter proves there is something very, very askew in the State of Hobbs: she feels guilty all the time; is relatively sure she was raped in youth; the poor girl’s voice shakes tremulously as she says, “I’m the only 19 year old who can’t remember what happened to me 10 years ago.”  It pains me just to convey her story.  Terry, on the other hand, has an attitude which can only be described as peculiarly belligerent.  When the police arrive at his door to further investigate, many years after the deaths, Hobbs knowingly muses, “I’ve been expecting y’all.”  It’s rather fascinating, and genuinely terrifying, to watch Hobbs interact with the cowardly David Jacoby, who acts as Hobbs’s single alibi witness to verify his whereabouts when the child murders had taken place.  Jacoby is either so emotional and inexperienced that he cannot help but milk for the camera – or he’s a shameless little showboat (I believe and I hope that it’s the former).  We are shown footage of phone conversations between Hobbs and Jacoby, from Jacoby’s end of the line: he speaks plaintively, submissively, frightened and usually hunched over; it is perfectly clear that Hobbs has the man wrapped around his finger.  And in private, Mr. Jacoby does not say anything particularly kind about Hobbs.  It is disturbing to note that new evidence is coming in all the time, even as late as January 2012 when the sinister “Hobbs Family Secret” is leaked to Terry’s son.

After the three existing documentaries which chronicle the efforts and struggles of the movement to free the West Memphis Three, West of Memphis is as close to “case closed” as we can get.  It also largely functions as a sort of tribute to Echols, the most public voice of the WM3, and his savior and love Lori Davis who married him during his stint inside (the two are also credited as producers on the film).  I won’t pretend to speak objectively about this case; ever since I saw the first Paradise Lost film I have been intensely moved.  From what I have been led to believe, murders of this kind typically stay “within the family” and 99% of the evidence now points damnably at Hobbs – this is the impression audiences are meant to feel.

The trial of the WM3 revealed its own community; everything evil, Satanic, suspicious, hateful, and sexually depraved – every piece of libel hurled at the accused – did not come from the suspects, but from their own community, and primarily from a few local little fish desperate to be the big fish in a very tiny pond.  The authority figures of West Memphis revealed that in a crisis, they will profoundly blow it.  Why have there been no public apologies?  No restitution?  The WM3 squeezed out of jail on a legal technicality (the rare Alford Plea) which leaves them very few rights, and no prospect of appeal.  If there is any point I’d like to leave you with, it is this: reform Arkansas’s legal system so this can never, ever happen again.


Official West Of Memphis Website


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