By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Rarely if ever does a real-life occurrence inspire more than one investigative documentary devoted to it.
But the “West Memphis Three” case has now been compelling and complex enough to be examined in four.
The fourth is West of Memphis, and it follows Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000), and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (2011) in its focus on an achingly troubling court case involving a horrific crime and miscarriage of justice.
The Paradise Lost trilogy was co-directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. West of Memphis comes from director Amy Berg. And anyone who has seen Berg’s previous directorial outing –- the shattering Deliver Us From Evil, a profile of a sexually predatory priest and one of the most emotionally powerful docs ever made — knows that she means business.
Naturally, West of Memphis treads upon some of the same ground covered by its three predecessors. But most of it involves new information and insights.
So, while viewers of any or all of the previous films may have more predetermined interest in the subject matter, the most appropriate target audience may be viewers who have not seen them. West of Memphis is, then, self-contained and is an exhaustive, 2½-hour, alternative-with-a-bonus to watching the trilogy.
In her dense but engrossing and accessible film, Berg celebrates the concept of criminal justice by wondering aloud about the shoddy police work and woeful prosecution, and the consequent outcome of the 1994 trial during which three “alienated” teenage defendants were convicted of the gruesome slaying of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Ark. in 1993 — presumably, according to the prosecution, part of a satanic ritual resulting in corpses that showed signs of torture. She does that by delving deeper into certain ambiguous aspects of the case and interviewing several locals who were not interviewed in the three earlier films.
Some of the new information dug up is both staggering and convincing, bombshells that at least call into question the supposed 2011 conclusion of the case, when the three defendants, after 18 years in prison, traded guilty pleas in exchange for their freedom.
Then the riveting film proceeds to suggest just who is most likely to have been the guilty party — and it is not any of the three accused men.
If ever a documentary screamed for the reopening of a court case, whether it’s a legal possibility or not, it’s this one.
If ever a movie demonstrated that a multiple murderer was probably still walking the streets, it’s also this one.
So we’ll prosecute 3 stars out of 4 for the gripping wrongful-conviction documentary, West of Memphis. It’s investigative journalism that unfolds like a thriller.