What to watch when you’ve already watched everything Part Eight! Binge worthy, not cringe worthy recommendations from Isolation Studios in the eerily quiet downtown Toronto. Three movies to stream, rent or buy from the comfort of home isolation. Today, dinosaurs, the meaning of life, the potential of the page and true crime.
Welcome to the House of Crouse. West of Memphis, is a documentary from Oscar nominated director Amy Berg, details the efforts to find justice for Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and James Baldwin, collectively known as the West Memphis Three. Last week I saw a tweet from Echols–“I walked off of death row exactly 5 years ago today.”–and was inspired to go back into the HoC vault to find chats with Echols, his wife Lorris Davis and Berg. It’s fascinating stuff, so c’mon in and sit a spell and listen in.
Last year ago a documentary called “West of Memphis” detailed the gruesome murders of three children, the subsequent trial of teenagers Jessie Misskelley Jr, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin, the court case that found them guilty and, finally, the evidence that suggested otherwise.
It was an in-depth look at a case that had already inspired three documentaries in the Paradise Lost series and a number of books.
Now comes “Devil’s Knot,” director Atom Egoyan’s dramatization of the events leading up to the murders and the “Satanic panic” that fuelled the hysteria surrounding the subsequent trial.
The movie’s first twenty minutes captures the easy-going pace of life in West Memphis, Arkansas. It’s into this dreamy setting that Pam Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon) sends her young son off to play with a friend. She never sees her son alive again. After a massive search the boy and two others are found, hogtied and naked at the bottom of a stream, ominously called Devil’s Creek.
Blame for the deaths falls to three teens—Misskelley Jr (Kristopher Higgins), Echols (James Hamrick) and Baldwin (Seth Meriwether)—outsiders, heavy metal fans and suspected Satanists.
“You don’t look like that when you’re a normal person,” says Pam, taking in Damien’s all black attire and detached demeanor.
The case, ripe with flimsy evidence, attracts the attention of investigator Ron Lax (Colin Firth) who senses that the teens are being railroaded because they are different. “A town loses three of its children,” he says, “and then sacrifices three more in the name of revenge.”
The rest of the story is well documented. The three are found guilty and serve eighteen years until the three were offered an Alford Plea, a little used petition that sees them released from prison on the proviso that they plead guilty to the crime.
In the past the story has usually been told from the point of view of the “killers” and their supporters. “Devil’s Knot” focuses on the Hobbs family—including stepfather Terry, who, it is suggested may have been involved in the killing—and the private investigator. It’s a slightly different take on the tale, although the details are familiar from the other retellings of the story.
The connect-the-dots procedural is buoyed by some top-flight performances. As Vicki Hutcherson, a woman tempted by Echols’ charisma, Mireille Enos is a live wire and Witherspoon deftly captures the grief of a mother and the skepticism of someone who is not buying into her town’s lynch mob mentality.
“Devil’s Knot” does a good job of telling a fascinating, if somewhat familiar story. Fans of the “Paradise Lost” and “West of Memphis” movies won’t find much new information here, but Egoyan has stripped away the clinical nature of the documentary to reveal the personalities behind the headlines.
West of Memphis, a new documentary from Oscar nominated director Amy Berg, details the efforts to find justice for Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and James Baldwin, collectively known as the West Memphis Three.
Convicted on dubious evidence in 1994 of the murder of three young boys, they became a cause celeb, with stars like Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder working to exonerate them.
The outcome of the 17-year crusade to earn a new trial for the trio is well known — no spoilers here — and the movie ends on a high note, with the men granted their freedom after 18 years and 78 days in prison.
A year after his release Echols talked about adjusting to life on the outside.
“At the time I got out I had been in solitary confinement for almost a decade,” he told me in September, “so I literally went from being in solitary confinement one day to the next being thrown out into the world.
“Out here it is like having to choose constantly. You make no choices in prison. It takes a lot of effort, a lot of energy. I’m having to learn things all over again. Even like how to go to the bank or use an ATM. Or use a computer.”
Despite being in “a state of deep, deep, profound shock and trauma for at least two months when I first got out,” he says life on the inside was worse.
“The level of stress, anxiety and fear that you live in is beyond comprehension to most people. You never even go to sleep all the way. Just the slightest noise wakes you up. There were times in the prison when you hear a noise and you’re on your feet, ready to fight before your eyes even open up, before you’re even conscious of what’s going on.”
These days he lives in Massachusetts with his wife Lorris (they married while he was behind bars), has written a book titled Life After Death and wants to do Tarot readings at MOMA asm performance art, but the adjustment to life on the outside continues.
“Life since then has been about learning to put one foot in front of the other. I have so much fear and anxiety just about surviving in the world that most of what I’m doing and dealing with is about coping and how to get beyond that. That’s all I’m focused on.”
This new documentary about the gruesome murders of three children, the subsequent trial of teenagers Jessie Misskelley Jr, Damien Echols and James Baldwin, the court case that found them guilty and, finally, the evidence that suggests otherwise, is an engaging but ultimately frustrating experience.
From the film’s opening minutes it becomes clear that the fates of the accused were predetermined. In the opposite of a fair and balanced journalistic moment a television newsperson reporting on the final days of the 1994 trial, says that the people of West Memphis (which is in Arkansas, not Tennessee) will rest easier when these suspects are found guilty. It’s an effective illustration of the prevailing attitude of the time. Despite flimsy evidence the three didn’t stand a chance of acquittal because they were perceived as different and dangerous. They fit the profile. One prosecutor even says, “You look inside Damien Echols and there is not a soul in there.”
The murders and trial are a starting place for Berg’s doc. The bulk of the 146 minute running time is comprised of the seventeen year fight to prove the innocence of the West Memphis 3, a battle which attracted the attention and support of high profile show biz types like Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder and “Lord of the Rings” director and producer team Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh.
Much of “West of Memphis” is compelling stuff. The evidence is laid out in a clear and interesting fashion, using first hand interviews, crime photos (including unforgettable and upsetting police photos of the three dead eight-year-olds) and information form private investigators paid for by the wealthy celebs who stood behind the three even though it “felt like treading water for years without the shore getting closer,” as Walsh writes in an e-mail.
Compelling and frustrating though the story may be, sometimes real life gets in the way of a satisfactory conclusion. The outcome of the seventeen-year crusade to get a new trail is well known, so no spoilers here—unless you haven’t read a newspaper or seen the news in years. Instead of being granted a new trial the three were offered an Alford Plea, a little used petition that sees them released from prison on the proviso that they plead guilty to the crime. It’s a slippery way for the state to release the men, but erase any possibility of them suing for wrongful imprisonment.
As a filmgoer it’s hard not to feel a let down at the end of the film. The three are free, and according to the evidence presented in the film, they deserve to be, but the manner of their release is frustrating.
Ditto the real life reluctance to pursue another suspect, Terry Hobbs, the man who is presented as the most likely killer. Hobbs is interrogated at length in the film but the police, having closed the case, are not interested in pursuing anyone else for the crime.
So, by film’s end, we have three innocent men free after almost two decades behind bars, a smug judiciary confident they have done their job despite evidence to the contrary, a possible suspect on the loose and three dead kids for whom justice was never properly served.
Real life doesn’t always work it the way we want it to and neither do documentaries. “West of Memphis” is interesting, but unsatisfying.