Reel Life mini-review: "West of Memphis"
You can't help but come away from Amy Berg's documentary "West of Memphis" disturbed and even devastated by the failure of the American judicial system to administer fairness and proper justice to its own citizens.
"West of Memphis" runs for a lengthy 146 minutes, but at the end, not a minute seems wasted as Berg reports with journalistic veracity on the judicial railroading of three young Arkansas men who spent 18 years in prison for murders they didn't commit.
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Yet, even as these men are finally granted freedom, the self-protective system refuses to pardon them or clear their names. "West of Memphis" is the story of a vindictive system that refuses to admit when it has done wrong.
In 1993, the bodies of three 8-year-old boys were found mutilated in a remote area in West Memphis, Ark.
Police arrested three teenagers -- Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley -- for the murders. After a controversial trial that involved Satan worship charges and suspicious evidence, the three went to death row despite protests of their innocence.
Documentaries have already been made about this famous case, mostly the "Paradise Lost" film trilogy by Joe Berlinger, and Bruce Sinofsky's HBO movies.
Then, "Lord of the Rings" filmmaker Peter Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh took up the cause of the imprisoned men and became producers on Berg's movie, which examines evidence in far greater detail and interviews some people not in the earlier docs.
"West of Memphis" is spellbinding journalism and a jaw-dropping eye-opener about how key characters -- such as the judge who's now a state senator -- had no problem trading truth for a popular ride to political success.
This movie wins my vote for best horror story of the year so far.
"West of Memphis" opens at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago. Rated R for violent images and language. 146 minutes. ★ ★ ★ ★
Reel Life interview: Damien Echols
Damien Echols, one of the three teens imprisoned for 18 years for murders they didn't commit, came to Chicago to promote Amy Berg's doc "West of Memphis," a movie he coproduced with his wife Lorri Davis. Here are the highlights:
Q. What sustained you through 18 years of incarceration?
A. I would say two things. My relationship with Lorri and my spiritual practices. With Lorri, we had this mindset that we wouldn't wait around for some future time when we would be together.
We're going to live our lives right now, because we are together now. That enabled me to be involved in a world that had nothing to do with prison. It gave me a haven, a place out of that world.
Q. What about your spiritual practices?
A. By the time I got out, I was meditating five to seven hours a day. Then I had to learn energy techniques because there's no medical care in there (in prison). They are not going to spend a lot of time, effort and energy taking care of someone they plan on killing.
So when I got sick or was in serious pain, those were the only techniques I could rely on to get me through.
Q.Did you ever think about what might have happened had Jessie Misskelley refused the plea deal to free you from prison because he would not admit guilt to a crime he didn't commit?
A. I truly believe with all my heart that the West Memphis police department and the prosecutors would have done whatever they had to do to pin those murders on us. If they couldn't have tortured a confession out of him (Jessie), they would have tried to find some other way to do it.
Q. Is it possible to summarize your take on the American judicial system through your experience?
A.I didn't realize before this happened what a big role politics plays in the American judicial system. The judge, the prosecutor, the attorney general, they all are elected officials, politicians who say and do whatever is needed to win the next election. To them, that's what they've always got their eyes on.
To them, that is the big picture, not your case, not seeing that justice is served, but how will they look when it's all over. I think the only way you will have reform in the judicial system, to get true justice, is to take the politics out of it.
Unfortunately, I don't think they're going to allow that to happen. I guess that's what I learned from all of this.
Q. In the movie "Killing Them Softly," hit man Brad Pitt says, "This is America. You're on your own." Do you agree?
A. I do. I believe when it comes the system it's true. We were on our own as far as the system was concerned. But we had thousands of people behind us, so we weren't alone.
I completely and utterly lost all faith in the system. What I didn't lose faith in were the people behind us. The people who were sending me letters every day. The people who were putting on benefits for us. The people who were sending $1 or $5 to the defense fund to help us out.
The people who would show up at the hearings and hold postcard banners on the steps.
We were very fortunate in that regard, but a lot of other people don't have that in those situations, and they really are alone.
Reel Life movie notes:
• Bad news for would-be fans of the upcoming fantasy horror tale "Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters." Paramount Pictures will only press screen the movie Thursday night before its Friday, Jan. 25, opening, after newspaper deadlines have passed. And we all know what that means, don't we?
• Trailers and commercials for "Hansel and Gretel" look very provocative, right down to the film's tagline "Revenge is sweeter than candy." Personally, I consider revenge to be one of the most venal of motivations in action movies, and my least favorite.
Revenge continues to be popular in the genre, as evident in the trailer to "Broken City" ("Your husband set me up!" Mark Wahlberg says to Catherine Zeta-Jones, "and I'm going to destroy him for it!")
In the trailer to the upcoming Sylvester Stallone action film "Bullet to the Head," the narrator ominously wheezes, "When it comes to revenge, he hasn't lost his edge!"
We'll find about that when "Bullet to the Head" opens on Feb. 1.
• Daily Herald Film Critic Dann Gire's column runs Fridays in Time out!