By now, I think those who know me well know how leery I am of jumping on popular bandwagons. I'm a big believer in the lonely voice of dissent, the ones who doubt the wisdom of crowds, those who see no need to support a cause celebre. I can do this even when the easier course is to just join the 99%, while still thinking that the 1% are no heroes. Bitter... party of one.
West of Memphis, then, presents all kinds of muddle. How can one support an injustioce? How can one not support three poor young men railroaded into an unfair, unjust sentence? How can one deny a good cause, even if it has celebrities attached? Well, it's not easy... but let me try: West of Memphis is a documentary act of political theater. What it documents is powerful and even moving. What that document means, and what it shows about our popular culture... may not be its real strength.
The film documents the events that led to the cause of "Free the West Memphis 3", three young men accused, tried and imprisoned for the murders of three young boys back in 1994 in the town of West Memphis, Arkansas. Pulling together work from three other documentaries, made for HBO, and with new footage, the film traces the initial horror of the original crime, the sensational aspects of the original trials, and the arduous process of hunting down and providing information for the eventual appeals that led to the recent release, under difficult circumstances, of those three convicted, yet demonstrably innocent, killers.
West of Memphis works best in that part of pop culture mindset put in place by CSI and SVU (with side order of Justified) - as people sift through the questionable forensics, retrace the statements of witnesses, and gradually piece together a horrific, and tragic, alternative take of events, the film works as a mystery thriller whose revelations, even when obvious, still feel breathtaking. The unfortunate thing is how these developments play out over many years, reminding out that TV's one hour dramas tend to misstate the real abilities of even the best detective to suss out the real truths.
The cause of the West Memphis 3 was originally championed by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, the couple responsible as well for the astonishing adaptation of Lord of the Rings (and now, the somewhat more endless feeling Hobbit), and of all the celebrity participants, their roles feel the most natural and organic to the proceedings. The case was, and is, clearly, as much an obsession for them as it was for those closest to the convicted men, and their passion for finding the truth, and eventual justice - without inserting themselves too heavily into the process - is admirable, and quiet moving.
I have no doubt that others, like Henry Rollins and Eddie Vedder, are also genuine in their search for justice. But the celebrity quotient of the documentaries steadily rises over the years until it begins to overwhelm at least some of the good intentions. The concerts, the press conferences, the chumminess through prison vistor glass... all starts to feel a bit too easy, too familiar, too much about "look who's here" and less about the tragic case and all the lives damaged in the wreck. The surreality surely is topped off by the fact that the penultimate major victory of the justice seekers comes out of a (dismissed) nuisance lawsuit against Dixie Chicks lead singer Nathalie Maines.
The ultimate resolution for the West Memphis 3 - freedom at the price of a useless, meaningless guilty plea for each of them - isn't exactly the most uplifting, and the film squarely evades the hard questions of what, really, will happen to all of these sad lives once the cameras are off and the real world moves in. Mystery solved... what else is there left to see?
West of Memphis raises some hard questions about class and crime and the search for justice in the small towns of the south... but generally avoids, as a film, much in the way of illumination beyond familiar tropes and easy stereotypes. It's hard being different, a bad attitude can get you imprisoned, society can be cruel to the developmentally disabled... these are not revelations so much as cliches, absent acknowledgement of other, more complicating social ideas. And the film does little to move beyond the cliches in trying to give context to these tragic turns of events. The result, then, is a documentary which left me, for all the interesting details and cunning detective work, a little nonplussed and emotionally distant. I'm glad they're free, I'm not sure its justice... and I tend to wonder what real life looks like for these folks when the cameras get turned off. And I don't think Johnny Depp can answer that for me. Or you.