I went into West of Memphis with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation. I was certainly eager to see if this new documentary, directed by Amy Berg and produced by Peter Jackson, could show us something revelatory about the gruesome 1993 Arkansas child-murder case that had already been chronicled in Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s three superb Paradise Lost films, countless TV segments, and Mara Leveritt’s fine book Devil’s Knot. The story of how Damien Echols, along with Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin, was tried and convicted as a weirdo-outsider-satanist; the corruption and injustice and years of protest; the trio’s release from prison in August 2011 — after all of that, I feared that West of Memphis would turn out to be Paradise Lost 4: Beating a Dead Horse.
But the film casts a hypnotic spell all its own. It artfully sketches out the events for anyone who’s coming in cold, but basically, its strategy is to take what we already know and go deeper. Berg pinpoints, line by line, how Misskelley was coerced into a confession concocted by his interrogators. And the film suggests that just as Echols was railroaded because of who he was (an android-eyed depressive goth kid), the Paradise Lost films actually ended up doing the same thing to John Mark Byers, implicating him because he seemed like such a vengeful Bible Belt creep. West of Memphis goes after another possible suspect, Terry Hobbs, who was stepfather to one of the victims and who has denied any involvement. In doing so, the film reframes the story’s terrible darkness, even if it can’t give us the closure we hunger for. A-