Sometimes fact can indeed be stranger than fiction and Amy Berg’s gruelling documentary West of Memphis proves this like a determined lawyer. It focuses with immense precision on the bizarre and brutal case of the West Memphis Three, a trio of troubled teens who were given a life sentence for the cold blooded murder of three eight year old boys, except the evidence suggests that this is no ordinary murder but instead some kind of satanic ritualistic killing. It’s a topic that was covered by a series of films called Paradise Lost, but this incredibly thorough examination of the gripping case is more concerned with shedding a light on the misunderstanding of youth than it is with the sensationalism of violence.
It clocks in at an intimidating 147 minutes, but travels at such an exhilarating velocity that it’s hard to notice those minutes ticking away. It wastes no time and immediately draws the viewer in with a plethora of original footage that is revealing, heart-breaking and stomach-turning. It never lets up and very rarely stalls, instead it gradually peels back the layers of compelling evidence in a way that is so involving that it feels like an emotional rollercoaster. It may not cause one to gasp like a film such as The Imposter might, but it makes you feel like you’re sitting in a court room with an impassioned yearning for justice for a particular group of individuals.
Throughout its lengthy running time it seamlessly shifts gears and viewpoints to offer a well-rounded perspective on the case, but in its latter half it becomes more blatant about which side it’s taking. Peter Jackson is one of the film’s producers and he is openly a supporter of the West Memphis Three, as is the likes of Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder. As a result the film is understandably biased, but it’s a film so tirelessly dedicated to its subject that it’s virtually impossible to consider that a flaw.
West of Memphis isn’t pleasant viewing and it borders on being exhausting at times but that doesn’t prevent it from being a vital piece of investigative filmmaking and a remarkable achievement for Berg despite not quite grabbing the Grierson Award for Best Documentary at this year’s festival.