West of Memphis
Though the name Damien Wayne Echols is now a commonly known one and the West Memphis Three something of a household issue even here, worlds away from Arkansas, these weren’t the terms that drew me to this title. No, the names that did that were those of producers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, talking head’s Eddie Vedder and Henry Rollins and of course seeing that Nick Cave and Warren Ellis had written the score certainly helped. Normally seeing a film for this sort of reason, for the people in those sorts of positions, is a mistake; you need to be interested in the story or the characters, everything else is too slight to truly satisfy. Here though, in West of Memphis, that kind of approach is actually rewarded, those supports are made as much into characters as the supposed criminals themselves, theirs is the story that it actually tells and because of that it almost manages to transcend simply being another true crime documentary.
A lot of people have asked of this film: “Is it necessary?” Having not seen the Paradise Lost trilogy I can’t rightly say whether or not it is ‘better’ than them but it does have the boon and benefit of all the knowledge gained since they finished shooting and is separate from the social phenomenon – it can have the kind of objectivity that the second and third films in that series lost when they became a part of the political movement – so it should therefore have been a perfect end point for the story, a final surmise, and one told from the interesting new perspective of the people involved but it never quite nails either; too intoxicated by the illicit material to ever truly step back and allow the subtler stuff enough time, but what we get is fascinating.
“People think that this case is extraordinary, but really its not. This kind of thing happens all the time.”– Damien Wayne Echols. If that’s the case, if this crime – terrible as it is, as all such child murders are – is actually a common occurrence then why are we now getting the fourth feature film focused on it in under twenty years? Because, for both better and worse we, the people, the angry masses, have made the case mean much more than a simple murder ever would; our reactions to it have twisted these everyday events into a extraordinary affair; one that speaks tellingly of humanity on a sociological, philosophical and jurisprudential level, telling us things that we mightn’t really want to hear.
In direct contrast to this dramatization, this making big of something small, Director Amy Berg has taken the hot-button topic, the big names and crafted what is mostly a very small and intimate film from them; one that spends as much time in lounge rooms, psychiatrist offices and front stoop’s then it does the courthouse steps or the crime scene. Berg also never overwhelms the material like some of her documentary director compatriots – she is neither seen nor heard from, which makes a nice change in this day and age – but she shoots with a subtle style that keeps the film fresh despite the literal staleness of the story and a lot of its images. The score by Cave and Ellis is similarly small and quiet, in contrast to their recent work on Lawless it all but disappears beneath the action; it’s stings and sorrowful piano chords simply setting the mood for your subconscious. That said when the audio or visual needs to blow up it does, blowing us away with a few short moments of sublimity.
It’s the story though, not the style that most stands out about this movie. West of Memphis is really much more about the people perverted by the ripples that the case caused than the details of the court trial or the cop’s investigation themselves; or at least it should be, those sordid details though are simply too sexy to ignore. It instead shows us the change that occurred in the court of public opinion while nothing has happening inside the real one; how the mob that massed the court and cried for crucifixion, called for these children to be sent to prison,was slowly and steadily swayed into one calling with the same vehemence that these three are innocent, that they need to be brought back outside again and how this eventuated in gaining the men their release.
The way that artists like Jackson and Rollins got involved is interesting, as are their opinions on the matter (hearing about Peter and Fran hiring PI’s over their Christmas break and Rollins describing how easily this could have been him in Echols’ position are highlights) but more important is the impact that their celebrity had on the case. They made this a cultural issue, a civil rights issue, a debate between the liberals and the conservatives, between the bullies and the underdogs when before it was a seemingly cut and dry case, one that you would have to be crazy to speak up against (How could you choose to be seen as siding with Satanic child-killers?).
The intentions of these people – and of the least famous but most important Echols supporter of all, his wife Lorri Davis, whom the film effectively frames as something of a star-crossed lover; her story its romantic core – were certainly good but I wonder just how well their efforts were really used and if their focus was in the right place. Again I have to echo Echols as he put it so perfectly: ” Don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful for the support people give us, but the main thing i’m gonna be thinkin’ about is: there’s someone who killed three kids still living in my neighborhood.” In the heat and frenzy of this big cultural debate the basic fact of the actual killer gets forgotten and when it is brought up it is done in such a way as to do the film a great discredit.
Echols and his friends were arrested and charged because they were seen as “the kind of [people] who would do this”; the trial was predicated on the prejudice of the small-minded small town people but West shows its own prejudices in a similar way. It points out the stupidity in those who so easily accepted the Satanic story told to them by the state and then as it reaches those stages it takes shots at the Paradise Lost films, since they too tell a story without all the information and since they too were accepted as fact before the facts were in. After all of that though West then goes on to dedicate its entire third quarter to making its own judgement about Hobbs, the latest in a long line of suspects because he too seems like “the kind of person who would do this”.
We all make mistakes but the biggest issue in West Memphis was the court’s unwillingness to acknowledge theirs, their unwillingness to admit fault and open their mind to a new possibility; that is what the WM3 supporters argue but it’s hard not to see them doing the same thing here with Hobbs. Look, they’re probably right about Hobbs but its hard not to see their attacks on him as biased, as wanting to find him guilty so that their side would be right. The case that they construct against him in built only on context (he was abusive) and cheesy horror tactics: the photos that Amy chooses to use of him while the heads talk are damning and the discordant guitar that Cave and Ellis employ suggests evil far too strongly.
Though I can’t see how it would have been intentional (unless this was an Exit Through the Gift Shop style meta-move) this late-game attack actually strengthens the films thesis somewhat. West of Memphis is really a story of raw emotions, of the desire for revenge overwhelming the desire for what’s right. Of our inherent bias and unbreakable need for unjust justice, of scales set to balance in our favour. After the murder’s West Memphis needed to take their anger and sorrow out on someone and found the perfect folly in Echols, the defenders needed to empty their frustrations with the affair and found the step-fathers as a good place to do it, we the people, angry over wars and debt, approval ratings dropping, found one in the Arkansas government and its Assistant District Attorney’s. No different in any way but scale to whomever did whatever they did to those boys.