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Amy Berg’s “West of Memphis” pits complexity against narrative punch, with mixed results

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"West of Memphis"

Documentary Premieres

*** (three stars)

"I feel like I’m putting pieces of a puzzle together," says Pam Hobbs, mother to one of three 8-year-old boys savagely murdered in 1993 Arkansas. "And I’m so scared."

Those same words should resonate with anyone coming to the contentious, controversial subject of the West Memphis Three for the first time through Amy Berg’s new documentary film," West of Memphis."

This gritty, two and a-half hour chronicle will be welcome grist to the thousands who supported Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelly, Jr. in their final, successful bid for freedom last August after more than 18 years of imprisonment based on dubious evidence and witnesses who later recanted. For "WM3" newbies without a grasp of the basics, it could prove a disorienting slog through the marshes of a criminal case already committed to film in three HBO documentaries directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky.

Berg, who received backing from "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson and partner Fran Walsh to make the film, starts off simple enough with a chronological entry into the grisly murder. She then proceeds directly to all the many disturbing warning signs that Echols, Baldwin and Misskelly were railroaded by a community paralyzed with fear of Satanic cults, and blinded by contempt for youth daring enough to declare their individuality in the buckle of the Bible Belt.

A hefty one-third of the film spends its time pointing fingers at evidence that a step-father to one of the boys may well have done the grisly deed himself, based on DNA evidence. Footage of snapper turtles feasting on a pig carcass to explain wounds left on the little boys’ bodies after they drowned is not, needless to say, for sensitive souls.

All this is well and fine in a film dedicated to showing just how rocky our criminal justice system can be when prejudice rolls over due diligence. That said, it disburses its emotional center in too many directions. If you can juggle the years-long romance between Echols and wife Lorri Davis alongside wrenching reassessments from victims’ families and friends, plus celebrity outtakes of WM3 supporters such as Eddie Vedder, this film’s for you.

To paraphrase Berg, there can never be too many films about arguably the most compelling case in the past 20 years of American criminal justice gone horribly wrong. "West of Memphis" is a valuable contribution.

—Ben Fulton

"West of Memphis" screens again:

• Tuesday, Jan. 24, 5:30 p.m., Screening Room, Sundance Resort

• Saturday, Jan. 28, 6 p.m., Yarrow Hotel Theatre, Park City

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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