The plight of the “West Memphis Three,” a trio of then-teenagers railroaded by the courts and public opinion and ultimately convicted of the murders of three 8-year old boys in Arkansas in 1993, has been well-documented previously in HBO’s Paradise Lost series. However, a stunning series of new developments in the case over the last few years inspired director Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil) to pick up the torch, resulting in West of Memphis (now playing nationwide courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics). Berg and the film received major backing from Lord of the Rings and Hobbit producers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh as well as from rocker Eddie Vedder, who had all become convinced of the now-adult prisoners’ innocence.
Horribly killed and possibly abused sexually in the process, news of the boys’ murders rightly shocked locals and much of the US when originally reported. Though two of the boys’ parents were early suspects, suspicion quickly settled on three young men in the community who better fit their neighbors’ stereotypical image of would-be killers. Damien Wayne Echols, Jessie Miskelley and Jason Baldwin were social misfits who kept to themselves, wore dark clothing and listened to heavy metal music. Rumors swirled that satanic worship, animal abuse and homosexual relations (horrors!) were practiced among the three. The court of public opinion found them guilty long before a jury did so, even though the start of the teenagers’ trial was rushed in comparison with similar cases.
Lorri Davis, initially Echols’ pen pal and now his wife, became convinced that the three had not committed the murders. As Davis pushed for a new investigation with the benefit of now-routine DNA testing of evidence, she also began an e-mail correspondence with producer Walsh that led to documentation of her and others’ renewed efforts to exonerate Echols, Miskelley and Baldwin. The three were finally freed in 2012 by pleading “innocent but guilty” via an Arkansas legal quirk rather than the state go through an expensive new trial.
The first third of West of Memphis is largely comprised of a recounting of the crime and trial that will seem overly-familiar to those who have seen any of the Paradise Lost films. However, the remainder of the new documentary contains shocking new revelations, among them the results of DNA testing of a strand of hair found in the rope with which one of the victims was tied that virtually proves Terry Hobbs, stepfather at the time to one of the boys, was the killer (no DNA linking those convicted to the murders has been found). Hobbs has yet to be arrested, let alone tried. Several witnesses in the trial against the West Memphis Three have since recanted their testimony and explain why they did so in West of Memphis. As one of Echols’ accusers now says in reversing his damning words on the stand and, it should be pointed out, under oath: “He was just a normal kid.”
Berg’s doc is gripping, often infuriating, but in the end hopeful about the ability of the truth and innocence to prevail thanks to the efforts of those who strive against all obstacles to uphold them. Of his interest in the case, producer Jackson bluntly states, “I have a pathological hatred of bullying; rights must prevail.” Kudos to him. What that all multimillionaire filmmakers shared Jackson’s commitment to social justice. West of Memphis is frequently horrific and heartbreaking but an excellent, engrossing expose. How did this not get an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary this year?
Paradise found and lost is a central theme in the otherwise completely different Tabu, a new feature by Portuguese writer-director (and former film critic) Miguel Gomes. From Adopt Films, it opens today at Laemmle’s Royal in West LA and Playhouse 7 in Pasadena before expanding this spring. The movie is even divided into two parts entitled “A Lost Paradise” and “Paradise.”
In part one, a recent retiree and devout Catholic, Pilar (Teresa Madruga), obsesses over the health and loneliness of her elderly neighbor, Aurora (veteran Portuguese actress Laura Soveral), in post-Christmas Lisbon, 2010. Aurora, meanwhile, is concerned about her distant daughter and Santa, her possibly voodoo-practicing maid (played by Isabel Cardoso). When Aurora becomes hospitalized on the verge of death, Pilar is dispatched by Santa to retrieve a mysterious elderly man named Ventura from a nursing home so Aurora can see him one last time before she dies.
En route (and during the film’s dialogue-free part two), Ventura relates to Pilar the secret love story shared between him and Aurora fifty years earlier in colonial Africa. Young Ventura and the married Aurora meet and eventually begin a heated affair. Carlota Cotta (as Ventura, looking like a 1950’s Brando) and Ana Moreira (as younger Aurora) are lovely and give affecting performances all the more impressive for their silence. Also worth noting, for gay viewers, is the homoerotic vibe between Ventura and his best friend, Mario (Manuel Mesquita).
For a decades-spanning, country-hopping romance on a low budget, Tabu looks great. Shot in black & white by Rui Pocas (with help from artistic consultant Silke Fischer), it intentionally evokes in aesthetics, settings and/or plot elements such cinematic classics as Casablanca, The Postman Always Rings Twice, A Streetcar Named Desire and even the original King Kong. The script includes more direct references to The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Out of Africa (including the line “Aurora had a farm in Africa…”), Jean Renoir’s The River and possibly even the 1999 giant crocodile-Betty White mash-up Lake Placid (Aurora has a certain pet on said farm). Only an avowed, lifelong movie fan such as the 40-year old Gomes could possibly incorporate such diverse sources of inspiration.
The performances sometimes seem stiff among the women in part one but this may be melodramatically intentional à la acting styles of the 1940’s-50’s. Gomes remarks in the press notes for Tabu that his latest work is “about the passage of time, about things that disappear and can only exist as memory, phantasmagoria, imagery — or as cinema, which summons and congregates all that.” Even if Gomes doesn’t succeed 100% at capturing or conveying this, the talented young filmmaker gets credit for trying.
West of Memphis: A-
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest, Rage Monthly Magazine and Echo Magazine.