Documentary Review: West of Memphis (2012, Amy Berg)

West Of Memphis is one of the most infuriating documentaries I have seen.

It’s also one of the best.

West of Memphis takes a complete and exhaustive look at the story of the West Memphis 3. For the uninitiated, the West Memphis 3 are three teenagers who were wrongfully imprisoned after the gruesome murder of three children in the town of West Memphis. The documentary is about the murders and the fight to get the three out of the correctional system. Witch hunts, shoddy police work, incompetent doctors and many other things led to the incarceration of the three. West Of Memphis spends a good portion of it’s time laying out the investigative issues out in great detail. The story and characters of this investigation and trial are so ludicrous that it seems more like a Coen Brothers’ movie then actual history.

The second part of the documentary focuses on the efforts to get the three out of prison, or in the least, to face a fair trial. Herein lies the frustration where most viewers will encounter as the people trying to free the WM3 encounter the stifling bureaucracy and politics that is known as the Arkansas judicial system. Let’s just say the documentary is not going to do a whole lot for Arkansas’s reputation. The story catches on with several notable celebrities including Eddie Vedder, Peter Jackson and Henry Rollins in particular, all of whom take it upon them personally to help the cause. Johnny Depp is in there too, but only for a second, making it the second documentary in which Johnny Depp appears and you are like, what’s the point of that? (The first being Strummerville). With the star power rolling in, the case takes on national and international acclaim and more and more information comes to light. Eventually, after two and a half hours of viewing, the West Memphis 3 are freed under the Alford Plea, which frankly, sounds like a cop out. Either way, one of the guys is out of death row, so I guess that’s good. The documentary also takes the time to solve the mystery (unofficially) by laying out all the evidence it has against one Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the sons. Good luck walking around anywhere after this film, man!

The story of the West Memphis 3 is a phenomenal one, as is the documentary. With the production power of Peter Jackson, the filmmakers were able to pull in some highly regarded talking heads to fully educate the viewers on some of the reasons why the investigation of the murders was not done correctly and combined with archival footage of the trials and the sort, gives the view a pretty satisfying look at the whole story. You will leave with many questions, my biggest one being – why didn’t the people who came forward as the case got notoriety speak up before? It’s all pretty messed up, which I guess is one of the reasons why this story and documentary are so memorable. I would say this film is inspirational, but when you look at the fact that it took some major money, Hollywood power, three separate documentaries and eighteen years for the system to buckle, it just paints a picture of how daunting the system can be.

The documentary is also scored by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, which is pretty awesome.

Here’s a GQ article about the West Memphis Three

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Posted on by Ricky in Hot Docs

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