West of Memphis

is a compelling documentary—surprisingly so at a butt-numbing 147 minutes—that unwittingly provokes serious ethical questions.


At this point, most people know the gist of the West Memphis Three story: In 1994, three teens were convicted of the murders of three young boys in West Memphis, Ark., due in part to accusations that they were Satanists. Henry Rollins and Eddie Vedder got involved at some point, and the men were released—but not exonerated—in 2011. We know how the film will end. But where West of Memphis is an unmitigated success is as a thorough history of the 17-year case and the myriad fuckups and deliberate deceptions of those investigating and prosecuting it. While bearing in mind that it's produced by the most prominent member of the WM3, Damien Echols, and one of his biggest supporters, filmmaker Peter "Hobbit" Jackson, it is a comprehensive and fascinating retelling of how things unfolded—from their perspective, at least.

Much territory was already covered by HBO's first two Paradise Lost documentaries, so this film kicks in seriously from 2007, with a particular focus on the perspective of Lorri Davis. She's a Brooklyn architect who struck up a relationship with Echols after watching the first documentary, and they eventually married. Davis became close to Jackson and his wife through the case, and between the three, we watch how a network of supporters and celebrities around the world doggedly pursued (not to mention financed) the fight for justice. Along the way, they employed independent experts and investigators to prove the three's innocence and expose how poorly the original trials had been conducted. As noted by the judge who finally released the men, their efforts are truly commendable. 

But the film's creators swim into murkier waters by taking that evidence and their own detective work in order to spend a good hour portraying Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the murdered boys, as the real killer. They form a believable case: Hair matching Hobbs' DNA was found in a knot binding one of the boys, a neighbor remembers seeing him with the boys shortly before their deaths, several relatives say he had a history of beating his stepson, and his nephew's friends claim they'd been told of this "family secret." But much is conjecture and speculation, making for uncomfortable viewing.

It's worth remembering that Paradise Lost 2 pointed at another of the boys' fathers, John Mark Byers, as the killer, but he is now largely considered to be innocent. Hobbs certainly appears as an unlikable character, and his family has some serious problems. But it's important to note that the WM3's troubled circumstances—poverty, mental illness, lack of education—are exactly what made it so easy to put them behind bars. Echols himself notes that "bottom-of-the-barrel poor white trash," like he and his friends, are wrongly convicted of crimes all the time. Maybe it's just as easy for us to blame the creepy redneck as it was for people to point fingers at the weird goth kids.

Thorny class politics underscore each side. It's frustrating that justice is never really served for the victims' families or the WM3, and that small-town corruption and small-mindedness win out in the end. So it's exciting—and slightly surreal—to watch Jackson and his celebrity friends attempt to do the investigative work the cops never did. Jackson's Nancy Drew turn gives the film a greater sense of resolution—Hobbs may not be in jail, but at least we have a villain. And, hey, maybe he did do it.

But as we watch hacker group Anonymous enact vigilante justice in Steubenville, Ohio, in a similar case of urban liberals vs. redneck corruption, it seems an apposite time to ask whether trial-by-media is better or worse than no trial at all. I don't have the answer, but it's certainly something to consider as feeling returns to your ass cheeks. 

Critic's Grade: B+

SEE IT: West of Memphis opens Friday at Cinema 21.