The 1994 conviction of three disaffected teenagers in West Memphis, Arkansas, for killing a trio of eight-year-old boys raised strong public emotions at the trial, and a lengthy campaign afterwards claimed that hysteria over ‘satanic rituals’, rather than genuine evidence, put the accused behind bars.
Documentary makers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky devoted their acclaimed ‘Paradise Lost’ trilogy to exposing what many believed a major miscarriage of justice, inspiring an Internet campaign supported by numerous celebrities including Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp and director Peter Jackson. After all that exposure, then, is there really any need for this expansive doc covering the 18-year span since the murders?
Those who’ve seen the ‘Paradise Lost’ material will certainly encounter an overlap. But Amy Berg’s film makes a compelling case for itself as a patient, methodical summation of the complex issues involved. Rooted in a precise sense of place, the extensive interview testimony and archive footage build up a troubling fresco of police incompetence, enterprising advocacy for the prisoners and a blinkered judicial system puzzlingly slow to confront escalating doubts.
Since the film’s producer, Peter Jackson, was also a significant backer of the private investigation key to generating the appeal process, Berg’s unfettered access creates a riveting sense of new evidence being uncovered before our eyes. There’s justifiable outrage here, but it’s lucid and focused, and if the celeb cameos and emphasis on crowd-funding seem over-insistent at times, it’s a viable point to make – public contributions really did keep the fight for justice alive.