Arkansas politicians: What a bunch of dummies.
You may have heard of it, you may have not, but regardless, here’s the general-basis for what happened on one afternoon in the small town of West Memphis, Oklahoma. Three eight-year-old boys (Steve Branch, Michael Moore, Christopher Byers) were reported missing by their parents. No less than a day later, their naked, battered, and bruised bodies were found in a creek. Some within the justice department felt that because the boys seemed like they were victims of something more than just a traditional murder, that the murder itself had to be something of a satanic cult. Therefore, the police limited their search to people who were believed to be of a satanic cult of sorts; which, as a result, lead them right to three teenagers by the names of Jessie Misskelley, Jr., Jason Baldwin, and Damien Echols. Though nobody expected these three to be so willing to torture, rape and kill these young boys, the evidence was there and stacked-up all against them. And in a court-of-law, that’s all you need to get your ass sent away for life, and even in some cases, death. However, not everything feels right to those who pay close enough attention to this case and its history, which leads documentaries to be made, new evidence to show up, various celebrities to get involved, and eventually, the re-trial of this infamous case.
First things first, in order to understand, or better yet, “get” this movie, you do not had to have seen the previous three other documentaries made about the West Memphis Three, also known as the Paradise Lost documentaries. Which is rather strange considering I had heard so much about them, but for some reason, never even bothered to watch. I just read, and read, and continued to read on until I felt like I had a clear enough picture in my head as to what was going on with this case, why it was so wrong that it happened in the first place, who did what, why they did that, who is responsible, and so on, and so forth.
Basically though, everything I read, thought, believed in and felt while reading paragraph, after paragraph, after paragraph of information, was all jam-packed into this two-and-a-half-hour documentary. And yet, I was always thrilled and continuously surprised, even though I already knew most of the info this documentary was throwing at me.
Like I said, pretty weird, right?
Well, I guess when you have a good director at the helm, it isn’t so much weird as it’s just an assurance that this is what can happen when you keep a clear mind and conscience while making a documentary about a very controversial topic. Sure, the fact that these three boys were wrongfully jailed, convicted, and practically sent to live the rest of their days in jail, is an absolute outrage. I know that; you know that; Peter Jackson knows that; hell, even Johnny Depp knows that! But when you’re making a documentary, or any movie in particular, you have to keep your eyes on the prize and make sure that just about everybody involved gets their say, their take on the proceedings, and reasons as to why they did what it was that they did. You don’t have to like it, but you at least have to understand it and respect someone human enough to make that decision and at least tell others about it – let alone a mass film-crew that would more than likely show their response to more than a few million people.
But here, director Amy J. Berg allows for each and every person that was involved with this case and was willing to talk, share their side of the story. And for the most part, everybody brings a little something to the table. It would have been as easy-as-pie to give us this whole story through the West Memphis Three boys themselves, but Berg focuses her attention more on everybody else surrounding it; the lawyers, the judges, the activists, the celebrities, the financiers, the victims’ families, the detectives, the cops, the mayors, the governors, the random civilians that just want to have their face on camera, etc. You get the picture – there’s a very large canvas here that Berg has to cover, but she does so in a very steady, matter-of-fact way, without rarely missing a beat.
For somebody like me, who had already known so much about this case in the first place before watching it, it was a bit tiresome and boring to get the same bits and pieces of info thrown at me, but it was still intriguing to see it told and brought to my attention by a different perspective or two. Rather than just reading in my head whatever Wikipedia had to offer me on that day in question, I was told it by people that seemed like they were professionals at the certain things they were saying, because believe it or not: They were.
Nonetheless though, there still is some info that comes around here and there that I never knew about and actually surprised the hell out of me. I won’t spoil the new evidence that shows up and exactly how it works for the West Memphis Three boys’ case, but it may shock you by how much of it went past so many damn people in the first place. Then again though, where this documentary really dives into is how those certain people who were in power and control during this case, didn’t really give a flying dingle berry who actually did it, they just needed somebody to take the fall.
Now, here is where Berg could have easily lost her cool and let these political, high-minded a-holes have it like their champagne and mistress on a Friday night, but she doesn’t do that. Instead, she chills out and let these guys say why it is they decided to ignore certain parts of this case. Sometimes, their responses are idiotic and so vague that you know there’s an under-lining meaning to it all, but still, they’re real life human beings, voicing their positions on the case and setting the shit straight. Not all of them are likable, but there are a few who admit that they made some mistakes, or, better yet, didn’t want to get too involved with the case because election season was coming up and they wanted to look all bright, shiny, and moral for those who cast their ballots.
Once again, nothing wrong with voicing your opinion, regardless of if it makes you look like a jerk or not. Berg sees this and allows for the documentary to be judged on that basis: Everybody has a say, no matter what.
As for the documentary itself as a whole, I can’t really say it was anything I’ll remember for the rest of my days, but I am glad that it was made. You have to remember, I never saw any of the Paradise Lost documentaries, but I at least knew enough going in to where I didn’t have to do a quick synopsis of everything that was going on, nor did I know so much to where every piece of newfound info didn’t do a single thing for me at all. Quite the contrary, actually. Anytime something new, or shocking did plop on the table, it hit me and made me wonder just whose next? Seriously, if these three, predictably rebellious and young teenagers can get thrown in jail because of the way they may have acted or by something they may have wore differently than those around them, then what’s to say they won’t come for us next? I know I sound paranoid and a tad crazy and all, but it’s the truth. That’s why so many damn people got behind these kids’ backs in the first place, and that’s why you definitely should to.
It’s your human right, dammit!
Consensus: Most of what’s presented in West of Memphis may be a lot of previously-known info, but still, with the attention to detail, getting all of the facts right, and uncovering new evidence, it’s an effective documentary that shows us, once again, why a film can be made more than to just entertain.
8 / 10 = Matinee!!