The true story of the three young boys who were murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas in 1993 has been explored in three documentaries already. Subscribers to HBO will have seen or have heard of Paradise Lost: The Child Murders of Robin Hood Hills, followed by Paradise Lost 2, then 3. Now we have the fourth and quite clearly the final documentary that shines a light on the powerful evidence illustrating an abuse of power that put three innocent teenagers behind bars for eighteen years, serving a sentence for a crime they most certainly never committed.
If you’ve never seen or heard of the Paradise Lost series of HBO documentaries, then this is the film to see, and it’s the only one you’ll need. It has the benefit of presenting the whole picture from beginning to end, and despite its epic length – it runs for almost 146 minutes – every moment is riveting. Without knowing its outcome, West of Memphis plays like a murder mystery that keeps you engrossed right up until the final fade out. As directed in a matter-of-fact, no nonsense style by Amy Berg, this is a fascinating documentary.
The film begins with an explanation of the hideous crime, explored in the kind of detail that will shock. The naked bodies of the three young eight year olds are found drowned in a lake. They are bound and gagged with slash marks across their bodies suggesting a satanic ritual. With news reels, excerpts of TV interviews, plus new interviews made for the film we get a gruesome though necessary detailed account of what happened. “I lost all touch of reality,” one of the victims’ mother states, and we cut to a TV newsreel of how she reacted at the moment she is told of the truth of what has happened to her young boy. It is hard to watch.
A man called Jerry Driver, a former juvenile detention officer, explains how he was asked by the authorities to supply a list of names of other boys who may have had some kind of connection to satanic rituals. Driver suggests the names of three teenagers, Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echolds and Jason Baldwin, three friends who were considered outcasts in their community. The boys were detained, interrogated and finally arrested. With a knife found in the lake and a confession made after a lengthy interrogation, the case against them appeared tight. “The community was relieved that someone was behind bars,” that same mother states.
But a closer examination revealed something different. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s incredible to think that the boys were ever arrested in the first place. Listening to excerpts of the tape recorded interrogation, it’s clear that the police lead Jessie Misskelly – a boy described as borderline mentally retarded – into a confession by continually suggesting facts to the boy of how the crime was committed. The boy, under hours of duress, began to agree with whatever the police lead him to say. As one observer states, “It’s not difficult to get a confession from someone who’s mentally retarded.”
New Zealand film director, Peter Jackson, the man behind The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the recent The Hobbit, heard about the case through the HBO documentaries and wanted to be involved. He supplied the financial aide to have all the details privately investigated. “I have a pathological hatred of bullying,” he says in one of many interviews, “Perpetrated by people who knew they were doing wrong.” Other celebrities put their names to finding the truth behind the case, including musician Henry Rollins who arranged a concert to bring awareness to the story, Johnny Depp, Patti Smith, Eddie Vedder and Natalie Maines from The Dixie Chicks.
A sign on the desk of a lawyer involved in finding the truth reads, “Never, Never, Never Give Up.” It’s because of people like that lawyer, like Peter Jackson and many others who never gave up that the truth finally comes to the surface. The actual killer still walks free, though the film has clear evidence against one particular person who will never be charged because of a plea bargain arranged by the state of Arkansas. I won’t reveal the identity of the suspected killer in this review, but like everything else revealed in this film, the truth and the alleged killer’s identity is shocking. You must see West of Memphis.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 146 minutes Overall Rating: 9 (out of 10)