The Sundance Review Revue: WEST OF MEMPHIS
The tragic case of the West Memphis Three, three teenagers accused, tried, and convicted of a crime they did not commit, is a story that simply must be told. But it already has been told: in a trilogy of superb documentaries entitled PARADISE LOST by directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Over the course of almost twenty years, Berlinger and Sinofsky chronicled the lives of the West Memphis Three — Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin — and systematically disproved the case against them. So the news of a brand-new documentary on the subject entitled WEST OF MEMPHIS was met by many with skepticism and confusion. Even with its impressive creative pedigree — it was produced by Peter Jackson (THE LORD OF THE RINGS) and directed by Amy Berg (DELIVER US FROM EVIL) — some observers worried this documentary would simply rehash elements from the other three films. As a follower of the West Memphis Three’s case and a fan of the PARADISE LOST series (you can read my review of the last film here), I know I was.
It is with a good deal of relief, then, that I report that according to the reviews out of Sundance, WEST OF MEMPHIS is a fine film for WM3 newcomers and longtime followers alike. Owen Gleiberman from Entertainment Weekly, for example, is a lot like me — he’s seen all the PARADISE LOST films and he’s followed Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin’s years of appeals online — and he approached WEST OF MEMPHIS with some reticence. He came out of the film, though, praising its power and artfulness. “The smartest thing that Berg and Jackson did,” he writes, “was to assume we’re already on familiar terms with most of the details of the case. The movie artfully sketches in the events for anyone who’s coming in cold, but basically, the strategy of WEST OF MEMPHIS is to take what we already know, including everything that Berlinger and Sinofsky have shown us, and to go deeper.”
William Goss from The Playlist agrees, in a B+ review that admires Berg’s film as a “exhausting and exhaustive chronicle of justice.” He also sets out the structure: the first half hour lays out the case against the West Memphis 3 from 1994; the remaining two hours take that case apart piece by piece. He also notes that onscreen timestamps date some of the interviews in the film to as recently as last week, which suggests the version of this film that (hopefully) comes to theaters or television in the future may be different than the cut screened in Park City.
That cut, though, is the one that Eric Vespe — a.k.a. Quint — from Ain’t It Cool News called “the definitive West Memphis Three documentary.” Is it better than PARADISE LOST? “That’s impossible to answer,” says Vespe, though he does note that Berg is “[taking] a long view and doesn’t shy away from the emotional moments. She’s also not afraid to let the counter arguments be made and gives a lot of time to those who disagree with the belief that the state of Arkansas was in the wrong.” In sum, Vespe says, “It’s a film that needs to be seen.” Mark Bell from Film Threat concurred; he called it a “must-see film” and gave Berg’s documentary five out of five stars.
Okay, so that’s WEST OF MEMPHIS, apparently a very worthy documentary despite its predecessors. And after four films, everything that needs to be said about the case has finally been said. What’s that? There’s going to be another movies about the West Memphis Three? Directed by Atom Egoyan and starring Reese Witherspoon? At a certain point, somebody’s gotta find paradise again, right?
“WEST OF MEMPHIS plays as the definitive explanation of the West Memphis Three case and what went so wrong.” — Eric Vespe, Ain’t It Cool News
“WEST OF MEMPHIS (excellent, highly absorbing…best film with Peter Jackson’s name on it since Heavenly Creatures)” — Jeffrey Wells, Hollywood Elsewhere
“WEST OF MEMPHIS big buzz title on the buses. Sorry I missed pre-Sundance screening in NYC#Sundance2012” — Lou Lumenick, New York Post
“WEST OF MEMPHIS (B) Tells the WM3 story more cleanly than the PARADISE LOST films, but without the sense of character or place. Drags a bit.” — Noel Murray, A.V. Club
“WEST OF MEMPHIS (B): Tendentious & overlong, but adds some genuine bombshells to the West Memphis Three.” — Sam Adams, Los Angeles Times
To find out when WEST OF MEMPHIS is playing again at the festival, go to Sundance.org.