Alert
Close

Last chance – give now. Before 2014 ends, help struggling seniors. Donate

Highlights

Open

Caucasian couple looking at a laptop computer together

Horoscope

Scorpio - AARP Horoscope

Look at what your future holds if your birthday is between Nov. 23 & Dec. 22.

2015 LIFE@50+ MIAMI

Miami skyline viewed through palm trees.

Enjoy fun in the sun during Life@50+, May 14-16, 2015

Most Popular

Viewed

Movie Review: 'West of Memphis'

Fascinating documentary examines gruesome Arkansas child murders and their aftermath


Director: Amy Berg
Rating: R. Running time: 2 hours 26 minutes


We remember the shocking details: Three 8-year-old boys — Steven Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers — were found murdered in a drainage ditch in West Memphis, Ark., in 1993. They were nude, their hands and feet bound, and one of the victims bore signs of genital mutilation. The McMartin preschool sexual abuse case in Los Angeles, which had dragged on for seven years with no convictions, had been dismissed in 1990, but national hysteria about sexual abuse of children, some of it connected with satanic rituals, still prevailed.

In that atmosphere in 1994, three West Memphis teenagers — Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley Jr. — were convicted of the Arkansas killings in a trial short on real evidence but long on allegations of cult participation, devil worship, hard rock music and black magic. (Echols was deemed the ringleader of the group and was sentenced to death row; the other two received life sentences.)

Since then, the case of the West Memphis Three has garnered much attention, including books and a documentary trilogy called Paradise Lost criticizing the convictions and calling for exonerations. Now from award-winning director Amy Berg comes West of Memphis, which has the advantage of taking a detailed look at the case from its start all the way through August 2011, when, in a rare legal maneuver known as the Alfred plea, Baldwin, Echols and Misskelley were released.

They had served 18 years in prison and were in their 30s. The deal, which allowed them to enter no contest pleas to the murders while simultaneously maintaining their innocence, was struck after Arkansas' attorney general, pressured to retry the case, admitted he wasn't sure he could win a conviction.

Damien Echols in documentary West of Memphis

Damien Echols, photographed in prison while filming "West of Memphis." — Courtesy Jeff Dailey/Sony Pictures

As in her previous documentary, Deliver Us From Evil, in which she methodically exposes the behavior of a child-raping priest, Berg mercilessly takes us to the crime scene (be forewarned: some of the footage is gruesome) and re-creates the aftermath, exposing our flawed system of justice that, too often, snares the poor, including the self-described "white trash" who were the West Memphis Three.

Early in his prison term, Echols was befriended by a New York landscape architect named Lorri Davis (they married in 1999), who managed to attract celebrity attention to the case from Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson (a producer of the film), Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, the Dixie Chicks and others. While West of Memphis includes them and their effort to win a new trial in its narrative, the film appropriately focuses largely on the evidence, or lack thereof. An early confession by Misskelley, who reportedly has an IQ of 60, is shown to have been coerced. A forensic reexamination of the victims' bodies stunningly reveals that many of the wounds alleged as torture at trial occurred postmortem. And timelines and alibis, when reviewed closely, almost never line up.

But Berg doesn't stop there. Her film presents new DNA evidence recovered from the crime scene, interviews with obvious witnesses to whom investigators failed to talk, and deep background digging among family members of the victims to point the finger at another suspect — Steven Branch's stepfather, Terry Hobbs. Sadly, because of the political climate in Arkansas (which Berg so finely conveys) and because of the still-flawed nature of justice in America, it's unlikely we'll ever know who really killed those three young West Memphis boys.

Topic Alerts

You can get weekly email alerts on the topics below. Just click “Follow.”

Manage Alerts

Processing

Please wait...

progress bar, please wait

Tell Us WhatYou Think

Please leave your comment below.

Movies for Grownups Radio

Download weekly podcasts of celebrity interviews, entertainment news and more. Listen


Movies for Grownups Awards

AARP honors the films and filmmakers who make the movies we want to see. Read

300_line

Discounts & Benefits

From companies that meet the high standards of service and quality set by AARP.

Cirque Du Soleil

Members save up to 20% on live Cirque du Soleil shows with their AARP membership card.

Member Benefit AARP Regal 2

Members pay $8 for Regal ePremiere tickets purchased online. Conditions apply.

Movies Unlimited

Members save 10% on purchases of DVDs & Blu-ray discs from Movies Unlimited.

Member Benefits

Join or renew today! Members receive exclusive member benefits & affect social change.