The saddest part of the West Memphis Three case is that it's not unusual. Three teen-age boys — Jessie Misskelley Jr., Jason Baldwin, and Damien Echols — were sent to jail for life for murdering three prepubescent boys. It didn't take long for those close to the case to realize that these three didn't do it, but it took decades to cut through the red tape and set them free.
Amy Berg's documentary about the case illustrates countless failings of the American justice system. These include incompetent cops who manipulated the intellectually disabled Misskelley into confessing to the crime despite the lack of evidence; a shady prosecutor who lied about an alleged murder weapon which he knew was not used in the crime; inept coroners who concluded that the victims' injuries suggested Satanic rituals when in fact they were postmortem turtle bites; and judges who refused to reopen the case because it meant contradicting previous judgments.
And then there's the state of Arkansas, which eventually forced the three to take an "Alford" — that is, to plead guilty while maintaining innocence — thereby allowing the state to free them without acknowledging that they were wrongfully convicted. Thus, no lawsuits, no restitution, and no Arkansas cops burdened with finding the real killer. The ugly truth is that without the help of celebrity activists such as Henry Rollins and Johnny Depp, no outrage would have arisen, and these men would never have been freed. Apparently, the only thing that outweighs America's fear of Satanist cults is its cult of celebrity.
Unfortunately, Berg throws the whole case into an aesthetic blender. One moment she tries to inspire with shots of flying birds set to "The Times They Are a-Changin'"; then she attempts a procedural detailing the case. She offers an intimate look at Echols's relationship with his wife and then launches into a screed implicating Terry Hobbs, one of the victims' stepfather, in the murders. She's put together five half-hour episodes rather than a two-and-a-half-hour movie.
The case is more intriguing than the film about it. West of Memphis (which deals more in the aftermath than Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's investigative Paradise Lost documentaries) panders to middlebrow tastes with its pedestrian metaphors and pat philosophical statements, but the case remains a microcosm of universal problems. As Echols says, "This happens all the time." Bad luck landed him in prison. Justice didn't get him out — celebrity did.
WEST OF MEMPHIS:: Directed by Amy Berg :: Written by Amy Berg and Billy McMillin :: With Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Lorri Davis, Johnny Depp, Peter Jackson, and Henry Rollins :: Sony Pictures Classics :: 146 minutes :: Kendall Square