Directed by Amy Berg, who co-wrote with Billy McMillan, and produced by Peter Jackson's Wingnut Films, 2012's West Of Memphis tells the now fairly infamous tale of the so called West Memphis Three: Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin. These three young men were tried and found guilty of the murder of three young boys: Steve Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byer. The boys were found dead in May of 1993, their bodies were hogtied and tossed into a creek and upon discovery there were signs of genital mutilation. The authorities in the case claimed this was evidence of the boys having been made sacrifices in a Satanic ritual and Echols, who was an outcast with an interest in the dark side of things and a taste for heavy metal music, was quickly declared to be the ringleader, Misskelly and Baldwin his accomplices.
Despite massive inconsistencies in the presentation of the evidence and the fact that a testimony was taken from Misskelley, a man with known mental issues, under duress the jury found the three young men guilty. In 1994 Misskelley and Baldwin were sentenced to life in prison and Echols was sent to death row. Though many in the small town felt that justice had been served a continuous string of new evidence and massive holes in the theories submitted by the prosecution lead to a grassroots movement of sorts to ‘free the West Memphis Three.' In 2011, as part of an ‘Alfred Plea' deal and in light of new evidence, the three convicts plead guilty to the charges in exchange for their freedom after serving eighteen years behind bars. This documentary traces that story.
It was, however, not the first to do so. HBO's three Paradise Lost movies were the first to get there and went a long way towards making a case that was decidedly rural into a national issue. Having celebrity spokespeople like Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins and Peter Jackson raising the issue at public events and fundraisers also helped to keep the case in the media and on peoples' minds. The events depicted in the third Paradise Lost film is basically where this movie puts much of its focus. Rather than provide character studies of the WM3, we get only cursory introductions to them and after we're given the facts of the case, the movie then proceeds to make the case as to where the prosecution screwed up. Much of this lands at the feet of Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of Branch, and the film spends a lot of time discussing his personality and going over the details and conflicting accounts of his story and his whereabouts on the day that the bodies were found. DNA evidence linking him to scene is also examined.
We also learn of Peter Jackson's involvement and hear from Henry Rollins who makes the point of identifying with Echols, noting that he was basically convicted for being a weird kid who listened to weird music and who didn't like authority figures, traits not at all uncommon with teenage boys who don't subscribe to the gospel of football or have much interest in mainstream society in general. The film is pretty riveting stuff and even if you've seen the Paradise Lost trilogy completely worth watching. It covers much of the same ground, there's no way that it couldn't, but so too does it go in directions all its own and stand as a separate though equally interesting body of work. Tacking on a score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis doesn't hurt things either. The movie is very well put together, skillfully weaving archival clips from various news sources captured throughout the last twenty years alongside footage newly shot specifically for this piece. The pacing is solid and while the movie clocks in at almost two and a half hours in length, it never drags and covers a whole lot of ground in that time period.
The end result is a fairly scathing expose of the American justice system at its worst. Of course, nobody wants to take away from what the victims and their families went through, it was undeniably horrible that it happened and nobody in their right minds would ever blame those in the town of West Memphis for wanting to see the killer(s) brought to justice. The more evidence that comes to light, however, the more this looks like a witch hunt. The fact that the Three are out is great, but the near apology on the part of the judge who saw over the hearing speaks volumes. The search for the truth behind the matter continues, as it should, and hopefully this is not the last we hear on the matter. Until then, West Of Memphis is, like the Paradise Lost pictures, an important movie that sheds some light on a remarkably ugly but no less important situation.The Blu-ray:
West Of Memphis arrives on Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed at 1.78.1. Now, given that this is a mix of newly shot digitally captured high definition footage and archival clips sourced from old analogue tapes, the quality of the transfer is going to vary quite a bit. Of course, the old tape footage can only look like old tape footage, there's no point in denying that and it's just the nature of the beast with documentary movies like this. The newly shot footage, however, looks great. It shows excellent detail and great color reproduction as well as very solid depth and texture. You might spot some banding in a few scenes if you look for it but otherwise, this material looks good.Sound:
The only audio option for the feature is an English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix, with optional subtitles offered up in English and French and with closed captioning provided in English. For a movie based almost entirely around dialogue, there's surprisingly good surround activity here. Most of this stems from the music, which is spread around the soundstage very effectively, but we also get some well-placed sound effects that show some good directionality from time to time. The dialogue scenes are crystal clear and, as it is with the transfer, so it is with the audio as well in that the archival clips tend to show their age. Overall though, this is a solid mix that actually does a nice job of taking advantage of the lossless format in which it is presented.Extras:
The extras on the disc start off with a commentary track from writer/director Amy Berg, Producer Lorri Davis and Damien Echols himself. Echols' involvement makes this a completely worthwhile listen as it goes into a lot of detail on aspects of his story that aren't covered or which are only glossed over in the feature. If the documentary's one flaw is that it doesn't give the WM3 themselves enough screen time, this track goes a long way towards correcting that as Echols talks about what it was like being in prison for so long and how it affected his relationships with people. He also talks about his thoughts on certain aspects of the case and its resolution. Berg and Davis cover the other side of the story by detailing how this movie came to be, who did what, and how they went about putting it all together. The end result is a commentary that's the right mix in that it covers the human side of the story but also manages to do a good job of covering the technical side of things.
From there, delve into the Deleted Scenes, as there is almost an hour and a half's worth of material here. Some of the highlights include more on the confession that was used in court, some back and forth relating to the handling of the evidence presented in the case, some explorations of the crime scene itself, and the behavior of the jury as well as a whole lot more. This material was likely cut for pacing reasons as the movie is already a long one, but a lot of this material is worth checking out as it fills in some of the minor blanks in the feature rather well and on top of that, it's just plain interesting.
Also included on the disc is a twenty-three minute featurette that shows off the movie as it hits Toronto for The Toronto International Film Festival Red Carpet Q&A session. Here Berg and Davis are joined by Johnny Depp, Damien Echols and Natalie Maines to walk the red carpet and provide some interview clips before we see an introduction to the screening from a video-conferenced Peter Jackson. After that there's a decent question and answer session with Berg, Davis, Depp, Echols, and Maines. More formal and better structured is the forty-minute Toronto International Film Festival Press Conference footage in which moderator Tom Powers hosts a session with Berg, Echols, Davis, Depp and Jackson who take questions from members of the press about the movie and the case it was based on. Moving right along, we also find a selection of a few recreated scenes from Damien's Past in which we learn a bit about his relationship with his father, how his style made him an outcast in town and more. Rounding out the extras are a trailer for the feature, trailers for a few unrelated Sony properties, menus and chapter selection. All of the extras on the disc are presented in high definition.
Sony has given West Of Memphis an excellent Blu-ray release. The audio and video are as good as they can be given the use of a wealth of archival material and the extras are impressive and interesting. The movie itself offers up enough new information and insight into the case and the events surrounding it that it stands out on its own, a nice companion piece to the Paradise Lost trilogy, and it does an excellent job of exposing the issues at hand. Highly recommended.