“West of Memphis” travels down a long, dark road

A masterful shortcut through a horrible travesty

By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Photo: [l to r] Henry Rollins and co-writer/director Amy Berg seek justice in “West of Memphis”; Rating: R Grade: A

A monumental miscarriage of justice in the early 1990s leads to three young men – Damien Wayne Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. – being found guilty of killing three young boys in West Memphis, Ark. Heightened sensitivity based on the ages of the victims galvanized a community and its officials to act without concern for the facts. The defendants – branded as outsiders and devil worshippers by prosecutors and the community – never stood a chance.

One of the fascinating aspects of co-writer and director Amy Berg’s film “West of Memphis” is that it is a documentary investigation inspired, it seems, in part by “The Paradise Lost Trilogy” from Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. But where that acclaimed series took the facts and crafted compelling stories from each of the three acts over time, Berg pares it all – time and circumstance – down into one digestible narrative, no doubt with the able assistance of producers – and staunch West Memphis Three supporters – Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, the creative team behind “The Lord of the Rings” saga.

Jackson and Walsh are by no means the only celebrities – Henry Rollins, Natalie Maines, Johnny Depp to name a few – to lend a hand during the arduous process. Rollins, in particular, speaks of how the perceived differences of these three young men, at the time of the incident, reminded him of his own teenage situation. The overall scenario is rife with elements certain to sway any viewer who dares to immerse themselves in the details.

Where the Berlinger-Sinofsky trilogy had the advantage of tracking the details and twists in the case as they were unfolding, “West of Memphis” is able to craft a narrative with complete hindsight. Berg’s film isn’t as susceptible to the trumped up nature of hype and hysteria. And that’s what makes the film a more accurate examination of crime and punishment. The witch-hunt mentality, the finger-pointing and counter-accusations, the reality-television shadings that allow audiences to look down on Middle American culture, it all gets peeled away like onion layers. The only real surprise here is the waiting game that unfolds as the players – attorneys on both sides, judges and supporters of the defendants – work through the appeals process in order to alter the rules so that true justice might finally be served.

Yet, there is a glaring indictment of our current system of justice that simply cannot be overlooked. Any sense of fair play in the courts has been removed, leaving in its wake a process dominated by appeals to celebrities who can raise funds and awareness in defense of the defenseless. But what happens if you aren’t able to secure high-end public figures to fight and lobby on your behalf?

This is where “West of Memphis” serves as a mirror placed before each and every one of us that sits down in a theater to take it in. We have to consider our own culpability. West Memphis is a microcosm of a nation that watched this case at the onset and then, as time wore on, turned away, as blind as Lady Justice. So, the West Memphis Three needed a little extra assistance and fortunately gained it from a privileged few who were able to galvanize a larger army of followers.

Often, pundits make fun of celebrities who step in and use their fame to support certain causes, but these knocks miss the larger point that we all have a degree of responsibility to stay informed and speak out, to seek to right wrongs. And if we joined together to do so, our collective voices could be even more powerful.

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com

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