It’s all but impossible to watch the Peter Jackson-produced, Amy Berg-directed West Memphis 3 documentary West Of Memphis without comparing it to Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s three WM3-focused Paradise Lost films, especially since Berg and Jackson themselves acknowledge that their movie wouldn’t exist with its predecessors. The main difference between them is that Berg more cleanly and clearly tells the story of three murdered kids and the three teens accused of ritually mutilating them. But West Of Memphis lacks the sense of character and place that made the first Berlinger/Sinofsky film such a landmark. Where Berlinger and Sinofsky had to slog their way through the wilds of Arkansas, forging relationships while figuring out on the fly which of their interviewees might be bending the truth, Berg had most of the story and the key testifiers already in place. Plus she had Jackson’s money and his intense personal interest in the case to help her get access to DNA experts, forensic pathologists, and FBI profilers, all of whom argue very convincingly that the three men convicted for this crime—Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols, and Jessie Misskelley—were victims of a justice system more interested in expediency than truth.
Like Paradise Lost 3, West Of Memphis goes hard after Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the murdered boys, contending that Hobbs was never grilled properly by the authorities about his past history of abuse, or his whereabouts on the day of the crime. Berg also examines each key piece of evidence against the WM3, countering them all one by one, and she goes into the entire culture that has developed around the “Free The West Memphis 3” movement, with people inspired by Paradise Lost forming online communities that have investigated, protested, and kept enough pressure on the state of Arkansas that Baldwin, Echols, and Misskelley were eventually freed—albeit in such a way that the state didn’t have to admit any fault.
Berg’s film doesn’t go that deeply into the sociology of the case, though, which means it misses how a bunch of obviously smart legal minds could be so arrogant as to railroad three teenagers, and then to dismiss so many sound arguments in favor of their innocence. Berlinger and Sinofsky positioned this outrage in the context of Southern culture, where men in leadership positions tend to operate with a sense of moral infallibility, while Berg takes more of a baffled outsider’s perspective. On its own merits, though, West Of Memphis is a well-assembled, well-argued documentary that shows how America’s advocacy model of trial law can lead to government representatives spinning stories they know are probably untrue, then using their authority to stand strong against any alternate theory, no matter how many millions of people believe it.