Why a return to the ordeal of Damien Echols, James Baldwin and Jessie Miskelley Jr. now that the allegedly Satanic convicted killers have been set free? For one thing, West of Memphis is far superior to its predecessors. Director Amy Berg (Deliver Us from Evil) acknowledges the role Paradise Lost trilogy filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky played in shedding light on the case of the West Memphis Three, but lays out the case in a tight, comprehensive fashion rather than Paradise Lost’s meandering marathon of direct cinema that raises doubts but never adequately solves the mystery of who murdered 8-year olds Christopher Byers, Steven Branch and Michael Moore in 1993.
Berg is a soldier on the ground for producers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh. The Lord of the Rings filmmakers and WM3 supporters lost patience at the slow pace of appeals and used their formidable resources to get directly involved in resolving the case as well as filming it. The documentary begins from the point of view of Lorri Davis, whom Echols’ married while in prison, with her determination to exonerate Echols setting the tone for the detective work and defense case Berg meticulously lays out. Berg may have the benefit of hindsight, but her powerful vision for narrative structure cuts through any confusion.
For all intents and purposes the case is solved, as the film details, although it was a defamation suit brought against Dixie Chick Natalie Maines by one of the murdered boys’ fathers that set the wheels in motion. Mark Byers, the adoptive father of Christopher, who himself fell under suspicion, gets a shot at redemption before Berg’s lens, and cameras are present when the WM3 are released in an arcane plea deal. Far more than an alternate take on a well-trodden cause célèbre, West of Memphis proves innocence beyond a reasonable doubt.