Sundance: 'West of Memphis,' 'Ethel'
I went into West of Memphis, the new documentary, financed by Peter Jackson, about the West Memphis Three case — the gruesome 1993 child murders in Arkansas; Damien Echols, along with comrades Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin, tried and convicted as a weirdo-outsider-satanist; the corruption and injustice; the years of protest; the trio’s release from prison last August — with a blend of curiosity and trepidation. I was intensely interested to see if the movie could show us something new, and maybe even revelatory, about the case. But I admit that I was more than a little skeptical about whether that could happen.
Like so many others, I had been avidly absorbed into the world of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s three superb Paradise Lost films, which add up to more than six hours of documentary material about the case. I had also watched numerous TV segments about it (like the edition of 48 Hours Mystery that aired two years ago), I had read Mara Leveritt’s excellent Devil’s Knot, and, like many another West Memphis Three junkie, I had put in my own 48 hours of sorting through evidence and conspiracy theory on the Internet. (Weirdest thing I ever found: You can listen to close to an hour of a surreptitiously taped phone conversation between John Mark Beyers and Terry Hobbs, who obviously know each other quite well, as they share tips and tales about being suspects in the case.) After all that, I had a fear that West of Memphis would turn out to be Paradise Lost 4: Beating a Dead Horse.
I should have had more faith in Peter Jackson, and in the muckraking fervor and finesse of the film’s director, Amy Berg, who made the great 2006 documentary Deliver Us From Evil, about the child sex-abuse scandals within the Catholic Church. That movie, which made my 10 Best list, forged a shiveringly horrific and cleansing drama out of Berg’s desire to know, really know, what went on in those scandals: not just the damaged lives of the victims, but the ungodly things transpiring in the hearts and minds of the perpetrators, as well as those who covered up their crimes. It’s that same remorseless and dramatic desire to crawl right up into the face of evil that drives West of Memphis.
The smartest thing that Berg and Jackson did was to assume we’re already on familiar terms with most of the details of the case. The movie artfully sketches in the events for anyone who’s coming in cold, but basically, the strategy of West of Memphis is to take what we already know, including everything that Berlinger and Sinofsky have shown us, and to go deeper. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, for instance, convincingly demonstrated how a forced confession works — but Berg does it in a much more detailed way, pinpointing line by line how Jessie Misskelley was coerced into a confession that was basically concocted by his interrogators. And though the film gives ample credit to the Paradise Lost films for putting this case on the cultural map, it sneaks in one very trenchant criticism of those films. It suggests that just as Damien Echols was unfairly branded a murderer not because of the evidence but because of the way he was (spooky-sexy, android-eyed depressive goth kid in a long black coat), the first two Paradise Lost films essentially did the same thing to John Mark Beyers, implicating him in the murders in large part because he seemed like such an angry, vengeful, Boris Karloff-eyed Bible Belt white-trash creep.
It’s in going after the real likely killer, Terry Hobbs, that West of Memphis casts a hypnotic dark spell. He has, of course, been fingered as the key suspect for several years, but this movie paints the most in-depth portrait of Hobbs yet: the documented violence of his past, his abusive relationship with both the stepson who was one of the victims and Hobbs’ daughter (now a teenage wreck who is interviewed extensively). And, in addition to the DNA evidence that ties him to the murder scene through a strand of hair that was wound into one of the ligatures that hog-tied the victims (all definitively documented on 48 Hours Mystery and in Paradise Lost 3), there is even more damning physical evidence, relating to a pocket knife, that comes to light, plus a startling new witness who was interviewed on camera only last week. Berg talks to the people who know Hobbs, and shows us extraordinary excerpts from the deposition that took place after he sued Natalie Maines (of the Dixie Chicks) for defamation. With a murder case still hanging in the air, why did Hobbs essentially force himself into a situation where he would have to be grilled about it? West of Memphis suggests that on some level, when a sin this great is covered up, it also wants — and needs — to show itself.
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Most of us, if we were making a documentary about our mom, would understandably tend toward the deferential. In Ethel, the gifted documentarian Rory Kennedy defers in two ways. She wants to paint her mother, Ethel Kennedy, in as rosy a light as possible, and she does. This is not a warts-and-all portrait of a famous political wife and role model; I barely glimpsed a wart at all. At the same time, the filmmaker is out to preserve, curate, and update the romance of the Kennedys. And so she does something that, in its hagiographic way, is actually rather audacious. Rory, who never knew her father (she was born six months after Robert F. Kennedy was killed), leaves out the dark side that is by now an essential dimension of the Kennedy myth: the serial adultery (not just of JFK, but of Robert, too), the contradictions of the Kennedy marriages, the destructive and addictive entitlement that rippled through generations of this family.
On some level, Ethel tells a half-truth, but the movie is much more than a gorgeous whitewash. For Rory Kennedy is such a gifted filmmaker that she’s able to explore the heroic side of the Kennedys with a rich personal complexity. Ethel herself is supremely captivating. As a young wife and mother, glimpsed in startlingly intimate home-movie footage, she comes off like a ’50s Anna Kendrick: a toothy sprite, always up to something. As an older woman, gazing back on her life, she’s plucky in her eloquence, and in her reticence, too. The movie made me feel, in a deeper way than I ever had before, how each of the assassinations blew a hole in the Kennedys’ daily existence, if not their sanity. It also made me realize the link between Robert Kennedy’s honest passion for service and the family of eleven children he spawned. He viewed the country, like his family, as a community he was part of. That Ethel and Robert were, in essence, aristocrats in no way detracts from the America that they inhabited and — had Robert lived — might well have transformed. Ethel presents the lives of Ethel and Robert Kennedy as a timely reminder of what it looked like when the one percent cared.
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