For those outside of the US the story of the ‘West Memphis Three’ may be a new one but for anyone who has tuned in to the national news since 1993 it would have been hard to escape hearing about it at some point. Following the triple murder of three school boys in small town Arkansas, three teenagers were convicted and sentenced to life in prison on the back of a trial lead by incompetence and the public’s anger driven desire to see someone behind bars.
The large scale media attention that surrounded the case inadvertently helped to highlight many of its failings and before long there was a gathering group of individuals looking into the facts and determining whether the three incarcerated teenagers (one of whom faced the death penalty) were in fact correctly convicted.
The first to pick up and document the story were Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky who released ‘Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills’ in 1996. They followed this with ‘Paradise Lost 2: Revelations’ in 2000 and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory in 2011. The success of this trilogy culminated in an Oscar nomination in 2012 and there was little left unsaid by the time the third installment was complete.
It seems strange then that West of Memphis exists at all and indeed it is something of a mystery that a subject so well documented would be deemed a good project to undertake. Perhaps the best explanation is that the case is just so shocking and incendiary that the more that is said about it the better.
Whatever the reason, West of Memphis which is co-produced by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh amongst others, is once again an expertly crafted re-telling of the story. With a hefty run time of 2hrs 27mins it is afforded the opportunity to cover the entire 19 years since the murders took place and speak to all of the major players at length. Whilst nothing new is revealed about the case, new footage not seen in the Paradise Lost trilogy is shown and some new talking heads introduced. What is conspicuously missing from this version are interviews with the convicted trio however as this is more of a case summary, the personal aspect that made the Paradise Lost trilogy so appealing is ultimately not required and it does not suffer too much as a result.
Where Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory chooses not to be judge and jury despite having 19 years to do so, West Of Memphis does take a stance and really hammers the point in the second half about exactly what should have been the resolution to the case in the first place. It is hard to argue with their findings and the new expert testimony with regard to the victims’ injuries is incredibly interesting leaving the viewer with little doubt about just how bungled the case was at the time.
With nothing significantly new to add, West Of Memphis does ultimately feel a bit redundant. If Paradise Lost did not exist then it would be a stone wall five star effort and it is very deserving of its 2013 BAFTA nomination for Best Documentary but as it stands it is perhaps only for people new to the case or who have a particular interest in it. With a dramatized version of the story based on a best selling book of the case due for release in October it would seem that this story has even more life in it yet.