When I was in the sixth grade we had to do a public speaking project where we had to deliver a presentation about any topic we wanted to talk about. I don’t remember what I talked about, but I distinctly remember that one kid in my class wanted to educate us on the evils of satanism. One of his “facts” was that Satanists are required to kill “six, or sixty six, or six hundred and sixty six people a year”. Even back then I was flummoxed at what a load of horseshit that was. Who was in charge of the membership roles? How were they checking the stats? Who would ever choose the 666 option when it was clearly so much more work? Wouldn’t it be a bummer to accidentally kill 7 people and then have to be like “well, it’s time to kill 59 more people, I guess.”
I bring this up because this movie is about the West Memphis Three, who were teenagers who got railroaded onto death row for crimes they definitely did not commit because they were supposedly satanists. The problem with making a fictionalized movie about the West Memphis Three is that their story has already been told extremely well in the Paradise Lost series of documentaries, so before the first frame rolls the filmmakers are going to have to answer the question “why would you make this movie?”
There are ways to answer that question, because there are things that you can do in a scripted film that wouldn’t happen in a documentary. For one you can provide clear answers to what might be a murky crime. Or you could make a treatise on the unknowability of truth, since the crime is still unsolved in the real world. Or you can portray grief and loss in a way that people often cannot do in public. Or – and this is the most interesting option for me personally – you can explore the chasm between the type of religious nutjob who tells their kids that there are people out there who have gotten away with killing double digits of people every year versus the supposedly delusional and wicked teenager who enjoys heavy metal and getting attention by talking about Satan. Those paranoid fundamentalists are never going to be open about how crazy their beliefs are to an outsider, but if you hire an actor to express the opinions they legitimately do hold then you could easily explore the psychology of the West Memphis community that let these innocent teens get railroaded onto death row in a way that would be really compelling.
Instead, this film doesn’t do any of those things. It doesn’t know whether it wants to focus on Reese Witherspoon’s grieving mother or Colin Firth’s noble investigator, and it doesn’t know how to balance the two characters (who don’t overlap at all until the film’s final scene) against each other. It doesn’t have any insight into the three teens that were put into prison, as they are barely seen outside of a few clips from their police interrogation or their appearance on the witness stand. It doesn’t offer any firm theories about who might have done the crime. It doesn’t get into the psychology of why this was allowed to happen at all, aside from pointing out how lazy the police work was. It basically doesn’t do anything, except point towards other better made movies that told the same story. Like that bogus speech in the sixth grade, this movie was a total waste of my time.
Winner: The Cat