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Dir. Amy Berg
(2012, R, 147 minutes)

My primary concern about West of Memphis was whether it needed to be made at all. The great Paradise Lost films, spanning 1996 to 2011, covered the case of the West Memphis 3 as it happened; it is an essential portrait of the American justice system. The new film, directed by Amy Berg and produced by Peter Jackson, reiterates a lot of facts we’ve already heard, adding also the wisdom of hindsight; the second Paradise Lost film largely, and incorrectly, pointed to John Mark Byers as a possible suspect in 2000. This film also includes Byers, but not as a significant point of interest.

But this film does have more to offer than just a review of old information. It has more access to some participants in the case, particularly Pam Hobbs, the mother of one of the victims, who is more open with Berg than she was with Paradise directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. It also goes into greater depth on the evidence against Terry Hobbs, Pam’s ex-husband and stepfather to one of the murdered boys; witnesses come forward with hearsay evidence about the so-called “Hobbs family secret.”

We also hear surprising testimony from witnesses who now admit to lying on the stand about the West Memphis 3 and their participation in the occult. But perhaps even more interesting, we hear from Arkansas state prosecutor Scott Ellington, who was the architect of a preposterous deal in which the West Memphis 3 plead guilty to triple homicide, but maintained their innocence and were immediately set free. Ellington explains that the deal shields the state from lawsuits, which seems to be its primary purpose, but then he goes on to claim, with a straight face, that the right men were convicted and that peace had been brought to the families.

Producer Peter Jackson and director Amy Berg

Producer Peter Jackson and director Amy Berg

If a prosecutor, inundated by 17 years worth of exonerating evidence presented by an army of experts and four feature films, maintains that justice was served by the original verdict, he is either incompetent or self-serving. The latter is more likely. Ellington is a perfect spokesman for the state of Arkansas’s willingness to sacrifice three murdered boys and their families, and three wrongly convicted men and their families, in order to keep up appearances.

But in their attempt to save face, they appear all the more foolish. Worse than foolish: derelict in their duties. There has been only one winner in the case of the West Memphis 3: the butcher of three eight-year-old boys. Whether it was Terry Hobbs or someone else, Arkansas has spent the last two decades protecting him, and the plea deal entered by the West Memphis 3, despite setting them free, also makes the killer far less likely ever to be prosecuted, not that they’re looking.

I’ve made many of these observations before when reviewing the Paradise Lost films. West of Memphis is worthy in its own right, clear-eyed and comprehensive, and any extra attention brought to this case, which is resolved perhaps only in the mind of Scott Ellington, is worthwhile, but I feel as though it may as well be titled Paradise Lost 3-and-a-Half.

Note: The screening I attended in October was preceded by a written statement by the filmmakers, who explained that the film may have been amended before its release if intervening developments demanded it. Whether this film required extensive post-production depends on the state of Arkansas. Or else we’ll have to wait for West of Memphis 2, or Paradise Lost 4.

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