West of Memphis (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)
August 2, 2013 by Dennis Amith
“West of Memphis” is a powerful, thought provoking documentary that will no doubt anger you but also inspire you to possibly spread the word in hopes that there will be justice for three young children and create awareness for the case to be re-opened and the real killer(s) to be caught. Highly recommended!
TITLE: West of Memphis
FILM RELEASE: 2012
DURATION: 147 Minutes
BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: 1080p High Definition (1:78:1), English 5.1 DTS-HD MA, Subtitles: English, English SDH, French
COMPANY: Sony Pictures Classics
RATED: R (For Language)
Release Date: August 6, 2013
Written by Amy Berg and Billy McMillin
Produced by Amy Berg, Lorri Davis, Damien Wayne Echols, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh
Co-Producer: Matthew Dravitzki
Line Producer: Tina Elmo, Dan Kaplow
Associate Producer: Katelyn Howes, Alejandra Riguero
Executive Producer: Ken Kamins
Music by Nick Cave, Warren Ellis
Cinematography by Maryse Alberti, Ronan Killeen
Edited by Billy McMillin
Jamie Clark Ballard
Vincent Di Maio
Julie Ann Doan
In 1993, three young boys were found murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas. With “evidence” collected by law enforcement, the detectives assumed that the marks on the bodies of the children were due to satanic rituals and when it came to those practicing it, it led to three teenagers being arrested.
Damien Echols was sentenced to death, Jessie Misskelly, Jr. was sentenced to life imprisonment plus two 20-year sentences and Jason Baldwin was sentenced to life imprisonment.
It was supposed to be an open and shut case, until Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky created a documentary titled “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” in 1996.
As the film was shot primarily to document the arrests of the three teenagers, interview the parents of the victims, the parents of the accused and the West Memphis Police Department, the documentary would show how the community reacted to the murders. But most importantly, how the star witness, Jessie Misskelly, Jr., a teenager who was mentally disabled was coerced by the police department.
Two more documentary sequels were made but the second film “Paradise Lost 2: Revelations” would show that further evidence was missed and suppressed and that the teenagers were wrongfully convicted and the real murderer(s) are still out there.
Since the three documentaries, many people including celebrities have been blunt about the wrongful conviction of these three teenagers and have wanted to see justice by having the three freed from prison.
Due to new DNA evidence, the West Memphis Three reached a deal with prosecutors in 2011 in which they entered Alford pleas which allows them to assert their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors have enough evidence to convict them. Judge David Laser accepted each of the three individuals pleas and sentenced them to time served and each have served 18 years and 78 days in prison.
Wanting to pursue the case, Amy Berg (“Deliver Us from Evil”) and Billy McMillin worked on their own documentary following up with what Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky was able to document but with the financial support from filmmaker Peter Jackson (“Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” films) and Fran Walsh (who wrote the screenplays to the “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” films) to produce the film.
Featured in the film are Damien Echols and his wife Lorri Davis, both Damien and Lorri met while he began his prison sentence and Lorri would communicate with him via mail. Knowing that Damien was innocent, she began doing her own research and trying to find a way to get him freed from prison.
The film begins with the introduction to the parents of the victims, discussing their last memory of their child. With archived news footage and interviews with law enforcement, the discussion of how the bodies were found and the interrogation techniques of the West Memphis Police Department becomes scrutinized as they are seen to put words in the mouth of one of the alleged assailants, the mentally disabled, Jessie Misskelly, Jr.
But as the investigation hinged on one of the “experts” of satanic rituals who reportedly learned his techniques from one of the well-known forensic experts in the country, the expert is interviewed and tears apart the investigators believe that the mutilation of the victims were satanic but because the bodies were dumped in the river, where tortoises known to feast on anything living, especially loose flesh, the marks on the victims were animal not by satanic ritual.
Because of the evidence that three teens were wrongfully incarcerated, celebrities such as Henry Rollins, Eddie Vedder and others came to support the Memphis Three, especially towards Damien Echols (which the film focuses primarily on) and help raise money not for their release but for the three to have money to live on.
What is known that the children were beaten, bound by shoelaces and thrown in a ditch and one hair was found within the shoelace bindings. The hair “not inconsistent with” Terry Hobbs, stepfather of Stevie Branch.
The storyline then starts to show what kind of man Terry Hobbs is. From family who discuss how Stevie was abused by his stepfather and according to Stevie’s mother, hours before he died, he discussed wanting his mother to leave Terry Hobbs.
We start to learn about Hobbs past troubles and despite the mounting reports of troubles in regards to Hobbs behavior, Hobbs is a person who does not remember much of his past and insists he didn’t commit any crimes. Meanwhile, filing a lawsuit he filed against Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines.
The third arc would feature the Memphis three and how the legal team worked hard to get the three released from prison. The three were released from prison as part of an Alford plea deal but because of the Alford Deal, they are still listed as criminals and any misconduct can lead them back to prison. The film focuses on the relationship between Damien Echols and Lorri Davis and together, fighting for his innocence.
“West of Memphis” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2012 and the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2012. On August 2012, “West of Memphis” will be released on Blu-ray and DVD courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
“West of Memphis” is presented in 1080p High Definition (1:78:1). It’s important to note that this is a documentary that features various archive news sources from the last 18 years. While the more modern footage looks great on Blu-ray, one should expect to see the archived sources to range in different quality.
AUDIO & SUBTITLES:
“West of Memphis” is presented in English 5.1 DTS-HD MA. Dialogue is crystal clear, certain sound effects are employed for good dynamic range. But for the most part, dialogue from recent interviews and even the older archived footage is understandable and good. This is not a documentary one should expect to hear their surround channels to be utilized but the dialogue and sound effects are clear and didn’t notice any problems with audio whatsoever.
Subtitles are in English, English SDH and French.
“West of Memphis” comes with the following special features:
- Audio Commentary – Featuring audio commentary with director Amy Berg, Damien Echols and Lorri Davisl.
- Deleted Scenes – (1:27:43) Featuring seven deleted scenes.
- Toronto International Film Festival Red Carpet & QA – (23:14) Director Amy Berg, producer Lorri Davis, producer Damien Echols, Johnny Depp, Natalie Maines at TIFF and discussing the documentary. Peter Jackson’s intro of how he got involved with the documentary and more.
- Toronto Film Festival Press Conference – (38:49) The press conference for “West of Memphis” featuring Peter Jackson (on Skype), director Amy Berg, Producer Lorri Davis and Damien Echols and Johnny Depp.
- Damien’s Past (Re-Creations) – (6:02) Archived footage from Damien’s past
- Theatrical Trailer – (2:04) Theatrical trailer for “West of Memphis”
“West of Memphis” is a compelling documentary that will leave you speechless but also in anger knowing that the murderers of three innocent young boys has not been caught.
Amy Berg’s “West of Memphis” is not only well-researched but the amount of archived resources, interviews and how the film is paced, you can’t help but be shocked at one of America’s most f’d up wrongful convictions I have ever seen or heard of.
From the handling of evidence, the coercion of a mentally disabled young man in order to get a conviction against him and his two friends to terrible misinterpretation of a crime scene that not only was used to get a conviction. And this is where the efficacy of Amy Berg’s research comes to play.
Whenever testimony of an “expert” was shown, we see notable experts come in and just tear apart the testimony of the prosecution.
And it was said many times that when you can spread fear, people are blinded by the fear and can be unaware of the facts.
This was the situation of the “Memphis Three”, teenagers who were seen as outsiders, dark and listened to music that most people the in the conservative town were not listening to. If anyone was seen as an outsider by the way they look or their beliefs, does it make them guilty?
That is where a town turned against these teenagers because they were practicing “satanic rituals” and with corroboration with other students of what these outsiders told them, these words became truth and it would mount “evidence” that these teenagers were evil and murdered three teenagers.
What is sad is the film shows how small town authorities may not be trained sufficiently to handle homicides, specifically during that time. Contaminated evidence, suppression of evidence. One of the most damning eyewitness accounts was a young woman who saw the young boys before they were killed and saw one of their fathers near them.
Yet, the authorities didn’t even bother interviewing these eyewitnesses. There vision was narrowed on these outsiders, teens who practiced satanic rituals. Especially, when there is possibly another murderer out there, as the documentary shows, may be closer to these children than one would realize.
The documentary is also notable for creating awareness for these men who were released in 2011 under the Alford plea deal. And what is unfortunate is that these men are still branded as criminals who served time and were released. And if they get in trouble again, back to prison they go. Many want to see these three young men pardoned, many want the case to be reopened so the real killer(s) can be caught.
As of 2013, since this movie was released, a bombshell was revealed in an affidavit by one of the mothers of a boy killed in the “West Memphis Three” case. And this latest affidavit will no doubt anger one who has watched this documentary and just wants to see justice finally take its place.
I understand there are people who feel the three young men are still guilty but with the new evidence and more and more coming out about certain individuals, who may be involved in the children’s murder, one can’t help but want to see justice for these children.
As I think about this film, how much I was angered by it but also glad to see the men freed and now be able to live their lives, you also can’t help but be grateful to Amy Berg and Billy McMillin on taking on this powerful documentary. Also, to be grateful for Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh to help produce this film. But also the other celebrities who have helped build awareness for the case and the current situation for Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelly, Jr.
The unfortunate situation about what we saw happen in “West of Memphis” and the topic of wrongful convictions, unfortunately even with new technology today, many cases of wrongful convictions still continue in our country and around the world. Many people in law enforcement, especially in smaller towns who may not be trained to handle certain homicides, evidence or even interrogations. People who are quick to judge and condemn individuals without the facts. It’s an unfortunate part of society and “West of Memphis” is a small example of injustice in judicial history, but unlike the “Memphis Three” who have had celebrities and films to build their awareness to their case, there are many people who don’t have that luxury and betting their lives that their sentences can be appealed.
While I’m not an erudite to all that happened in this case, “West of Memphis” does build upon interviews with well-known people in the field to know what went wrong in this case. The research that went into this film and the people that Berg and McMillin were able to get for interviews was a strong point to this film, especially with the number of archived footage since 1993.
As for the Blu-ray release, picture quality is good for the modern footage but as one can expect from a documentary with archived material, picture quality will differ. Dialogue is clear and understandable and there are a good number of special features included.
Overall, “West of Memphis” is a powerful, thought provoking documentary that will no doubt anger you but also inspire you to possibly spread the word in hopes that there will be justice for three young children and create awareness for the case to be re-opened and the real killer(s) to be caught.
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