It gets to the point where I'd give my life to know the [expletive] truth," witness David Jacoby says tearfully near the end of West of Memphis, the fourth feature documentary on the 1993 murders of West Memphis children Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore, which led to the eventually not-quite-overturned conviction of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr. Earlier, Branch's mother, Pam Hobbs, sitting on a bed, looking at old family photos, breaks down. "I just want the truth. I want the answers," she says.
Let these be the voices for the rest of us — those who believe that a miscarriage of justice was committed with the initial conviction of the so-called West Memphis 3 but who aren't particularly interested in Eddie Vedder cameos or the human-interest details of Damien Echols' death-row courtship with activist Lorri Davis.
After more than 400 minutes across the three previous Paradise Lost films, did we really need another 147 minutes on the subject from filmmaker Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil) and co-producers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh? Maybe. Some of it anyway.
West of Memphis might have been leaner if it spent less time with celebrity advocates such as Vedder, Henry Rollins, and Natalie Maines and delved less into the relationship between Echols and Davis, who are both also co-producers.
There's an audience for all that, of course. But the substance of the film is still the details of the initial conviction and the lingering mystery of what, to many, if not to the state of Arkansas, remains an unsolved case.
West of Memphis provides even more persuasive arguments — particularly in terms of Misskelley's coached confession and mishandled forensic evidence — toward what most who've followed the case long ago concluded: that even aside from questions of innocence or guilt, the West Memphis 3 were victims of a wrongful conviction.
The case this film makes against Terry Hobbs, Branch's stepfather, is in no way conclusive but is perhaps more compelling than the remaining case against Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley and is certainly more suggestive than the reckless case Paradise Lost built toward Byers' adoptive father, John Mark Byers. Based on what West of Memphis presents, which is more thorough than a similar thrust in the third Paradise Lost film, most viewers might want to see authorities take Hobbs more seriously as a suspect than they've appeared willing to.
But the waters are poisoned in this case when it comes to implicating anyone, with the seemingly false accusations toward first Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley, and then Byers, coloring the recent emphasis on Hobbs. West of Memphis might seem convincing, but you carry the knowledge that, as a direct outgrowth of the West Memphis 3 movement and under the partial direction of both Davis and Echols, its consideration of the evidence can't be fully dispassionate. Independent-minded viewers will be reluctant to abandon skepticism.
West of Memphis is, at least, something more than rehash. It features fresh interviews with many people involved in the case from all sides, including some key witnesses now recanting testimony and others whose testimony should have been more prominent from the beginning. And the original material is more sharply filmed and more artfully marshaled to the screen than in the Paradise Lost series.
But not all of this new stuff feels necessary. Material featuring Samantha Hobbs, the younger sister of Stevie Branch, is needlessly exploitative, particularly what purports to be on-camera glimpses of Hobbs' sessions with a therapist.
With West of Memphis, we're at more than nine hours of feature film on this case, with more to come in the form of Devil's Knot, an adaptation of journalist Mara Leveritt's book, which is set to be released later this year. But closure remains elusive.
West of Memphis
Opening Friday, March 1st
Studio on the Square