Satanic rituals and child killings have been used so much in fiction, they became clichés. It's two ideas that feed off irrational fears and send people in full-blown pitchfork-and-torch lynch mob mode. So when three children were murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas in 1993, people freaked out. Like it's often the case when tragedy strikes, people were more preoccupied finding a culprit than understanding what was going on. The case of Damien Echols, Jessie Miskelley and Jason Baldwin wrongly accused and detained for almost decades for the murders, has been the most publicized travesty of justice in America for about a decade. WEST OF MEMPHIS is attempting to gain perspective on the case, now that the boys' nightmare is over.
The murders of Steve Branch, Christopher Byers and James Moore changed the humble municipality of West Memphis forever *. Otherwise peaceful, God-fearing towns cannot go on, knowing there's a killer on the loose, so police had the brilliant idea to shake down Damien Echols, the local Satanist kid and his friends, trying to squeeze a confession out of them. It barely worked, but since Jessie Miskelley ''technically'' confessed **, both Miskelley and Jason Baldwin were sentenced to life in prison, while Echols was sentenced to death. Deputy Prosecutor John Fogleman killed two bird with one stone : he ''caught the boys' killer'' and got rid of a Satanist cult. I mean, wow. Great career move. Too bad it amounted to nothing, except to piss on three people's lives.
WEST OF MEMPHIS is some serious gaze-into-the-abyss stuff. It sure is an acquired taste, you see the mutilated bodies of Steve, Christopher and James ***. As displeasant of a sight as it is, it's unfortunately the truth. What you see on screen is what happened to three innocent kids and raises a question of the utmost importance : Why would you let anybody get away with this? It explains why a jury has jumped the gun sentencing Damien, Jessie and Jason in the first place anf it also begs to ask: why the fuck is the real killer still walking the streets? Then you enter the heart of the question of the West Memphis Murders : what does it cost you to admit that you're wrong?
Pictured above : the gap between law and justice.
It's been pretty much established who killed Steve Branch, Christopher Byers and James Moore. The DNA of Terry Hobbs, Steve's stepfather, has been found on the crime scene. He has a background of violence towards women and children and WEST OF MEMPHIS has a heartbreaking interview segment with Steve's stepsister Amanda, who's now struggling with addiction, who admits she has dreams of Terry Hobbs having sex with her as a child ****. So, why not admit your mistake and arrest Hobbs? Because John Fogleman became a powerful man through the process. In the most gaze-into-the-abyss scene of them all, maybe, WEST OF MEMPHIS interviews an jury that condemned Echols, Miskelley and Baldwin. She is so devoured by the possibility she could've done a terrible mistake and REFUSES to admit that anybody but the West Memphis 3 could've killed the kids.
Eventually, the state of Arkansas got bored of paying money to look stupid in front of the whole wolrd and let the boys go in exchange of an admission of technical guilt *****. There is a beautiful scene where Jessie Miskelley is welcomed home to a barbecue in the end. That moved me, because I know people like Jessie and his family. They're people who want nothing but a peaceful, quiet life. In the end, the West Memphis 3 got their lives back. WEST OF MEMPHIS assesses the damages that were done to their lives and done to us, as a society. It's also a captivating study of the mechanisms of human reason. Three rebellious, yet innocent kids rot in jail for 18 years, so that we could sleep at night. WEST OF MEMPHIS is a terrible reminder of our failure to gaze into the abyss as a society, even when the situation demands it.
* In case you were wondering, like me, how West Memphis can be in Arkansas and not, you know, Tennesee, know that it's right across the Mississipi river. It's to Memphis what New Jersey is to New York.
** You can hear the police officers suggesting he changes his version on the interrogation tape. It's a funny thing, because it's pretty much established that Miskelley was in another COUNTY on that day, at a pro-wrestling show.
*** I repeat, you see the mutilated bodies of Steve, Christopher and James. So if you can't stomach this sort of thing, don't watch WEST OF MEMPHIS.
**** Amanda insists that they were dreams, but trauma is a funny thing. Why would a child dream about things that horrible all the time?
***** Also known as the ''Alford Plea''