Though by no means an American exclusive, there is something innately American in the figure of the crusading journalist, fighting wrongs and taking the side of justice. While West of Memphis is a documentary and does not have a crusading journalist at its centre, it is a peculiar iteration of that figure: a crusading documentary following the long-winded battle to clear the names of three Arkansas teenagers tried and convicted of the murder of three schoolboys in 1994 in the smalltown of West Memphis. Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin, the "West Memphis Three" as they became known, were swiftly condemned both by the court of justice and the court of public opinion, but there were serious misgivings about their culpability in the heads of many who knew them. As time went on, witnesses came forward to declare they had lied on the stand, and the idea that the convictions (death for Mr. Echols, considered the leader, life sentences for Messrs. Baldwin and Misskelley) had been a miscarriage of justice grew into a full-fledged fight to reopen the case and apply contemporary forensic techniques.

     Filmmaker Amy Berg's isn't the first documentary about the case - Joe Berlinger and Blake Sinofsky helped raise awareness of it with their 1996 HBO film Paradise Lost and explored different aspects in its sequels, Paradise Lost: Revelation and Paradise Lost: Purgatory - but is the more heavyweight one. The producers are the Kiwi husband-and-wife team of Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson (yes, them of The Lord of the Rings), active for the past ten years as backers of the WM3 campaign, and features statements from many of the most famous public backers, namely musicians Eddie Vedder and Henry Rollins. West of Memphis purports to be a primer on the case's evolution, from the 1993 horrible murder case to the 2012 release of the three under a controversial legal arrangement that exonerates the state of Arkansas from any misdeeds, underlining its symbolic value as a struggle for true justice in the American South.

     This is particularly important, as the film brings to attention the notable divide between "red state" and "blue state" America. The conviction is suggested as a product of "red state" mob mentality scapegoating the "other", the "different", the three kids from the wrong side of the tracks, trailer park trash from whom nothing was ever expected; the freedom campaign is organised by "blue state" liberals with the help of public figures fighting for ideals and values but whose lives are remote from the reality on the ground. The film thus reveals the constant shifting balance at the heart of American society and politics, its polarisation between head and heart, city and country, tradition and innovation.

     This itself might be well enough for a great film, and could even rival Werner Herzog's masterful study of social tensions around a murder, Into the Abyss, but Ms. Berg is trying to fit far too much into a single film (and a long one at that, with a clearly overblown two and a half hour running time). West of Memphis seems to want to be a real-life murder mystery asking "whodunit" and a study of how a case like this affects a place and those who live through it. And while the activist-procedural angle of the film's first third (going through the crime, the trial and the follow-up steps) does all the right things and asks all the right questions, West of Memphis slowly slides into a unwieldy, hollow denunciation of a miscarriage of justice and a celebration of the rule of the law, carried by a determined certainty of being on the right side of the law that completely misses the forest for the trees.

     As interested as the filmmaker is on the effect of the case on the families of the victims, she never seems very interested in the people at its centre - Messrs. Baldwin, Echols and Misskelley remain vaguely drawn question marks, blanks who never appear much on screen, used merely as symbols caught up in a web of social and criminal injustice that transcends them from the beginning. When the subjects of your own film remain out of reach, there is not enough efficient storytelling and narrative proficiency, or acutely aware eye, that can raise West of Memphis above an effective but purely functional activist primer about a controversial murder case. But then, maybe that's all it ever wanted to be.

Director: Amy Berg
Screenplay: Ms. Berg, Billy McMillin
Cinematography: Maryse Alberti, Ronan Killeen (colour, processing by Park Road Post Production)
Music: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis
Editor: Mr. McMillin
Producers: Ms. Berg, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson, Damien Echols, Lorri Davis (Wingnut Films in association with Disarming Films)
USA/New Zealand, 2012, 147 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Columbia Tristar Warner screening room (Lisbon), November 19th 2012


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