Amy Berg’s “West of Memphis” is not the first documentary to look into the 1993 deaths of three little boys in West Memphis, Ark. But it may be the definitive look at a case that encompasses in chilling particulars issues of murder, injustice, activism and the imperfections in the American justice system.
This much is true: On May 6, 1993, the bodies of three eight-year-old boys — Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers — were found in a drainage ditch in West Memphis, Ark. They were naked and hogtied, and at least one of them had their genitals removed. From there, as Berg details with laser-like precision, everything else is in dispute.
When the case was first investigated and tried, police and prosecutors believed the murders were a ritual killing, possibly with satanic or cult motives. The police arrested three teens: Jessie Misskelley, Charles Jason Baldwin and Damien Wayne Echols. Using a taped confession from Misskelley (whose IQ was reported at a lowly 72) and forensic analysis by pathologist Frank Peretti, prosecutors won murder convictions against all three — with Nichols receiving a death sentence. Appeals were denied, and there it might have rested.
But the way sheriffs and prosecutors handled the case raised a sea of questions — questions that were first raised to a national audience by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s 1996 documentary “Paradise Lost” (which became the first of a trilogy). The case also spawned an international protest effort, with such celebrities as Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder (of Pearl Jam) and Natalie Maines (of The Dixie Chicks) speaking up for the “West Memphis 3.”
Also getting involved were Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, the husband-and-wife filmmaking team behind “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Not only did they produce “West of Memphis,” but they bankrolled private detectives and a retired FBI profiler, John Douglas, to pore over the case files with twin goals: Proving the innocence of the three men behind bars, and figure out who really committed the crimes.
Berg (“Deliver Us From Evil”) interviews a host of people — including Echols from behind bars, as well as victims’ relatives, the judge on the original case, investigators and lawyers, even Vedder and Jackson — intercut with trial footage to paint a full portrait of the case. She shows the evidence, and the dubious conclusions prosecutors reached as they tried Misskelley, Baldwin and Echols. She chronicles the activism that kept interest alive for decades. And, in some chilling footage, she even points a finger at a suspect that the police should have considered but didn’t.
“West of Memphis” ultimately raises more questions than it answers — as anything short of convicting the real killer would. But it tells a compelling story, told with the investigative force of good journalism and the dramatic pacing of a first-rate thriller. It’s a gut-punching reminder that justice isn’t always as swift or as sure as we would like.
‘West of Memphis’
A real-life case of murder and injustice, which plays like a crackerjack thriller.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas
When • Opens today.
Rating • R for disturbing violent content and some language.
Running time • 147 mins.