West of Memphis
There were some great documentaries playing at LFF this year, so I decided to fit one into my schedule - the winner being Amy Berg's West of Memphis, an account of the arrest, prosecution, appeal and release of the "West Memphis Three" convicted of killing three small boys in 1993. Berg, who had success in 2006 for her acclaimed documentary Deliver Us From Evil about the covering up of rape in the Catholic Church, is determined to also expose the truth here and show these men's innocence. What we ultimately get in a case still on-going, ridden with lies and political influence, is more questions, but an important breakthrough is captured in an extensive, fascinating and frightening depiction of the horrors of misjustice. In 1993 three young school boys went missing in West Memphis, Arkansas and were later found dead, having apparently been tortured, molested and drowned in a local stream. Three teenagers were soon arrested for their murder - Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin, the "West Memphis Three" - suspected because of their interest in satanic cults and practice and the similarities this matched with the young boys deaths. All three declared their innocence, but with witnesses attesting to their confessions of the murders, the three were declared guilty, given life imprisonment sentences and Echols handed the death penalty. The case was thought closed, until many years later Echols' wife Lorri Davis fights to get an appeal heard and a new, fair trial to be had to prove her husband - and his friends - innocent in light of new forensic evidence being available and a number of the damning witnesses admitting to lying on the stand. With the involvement and backing of director Peter Jackson and his wife Fran, the quest to seek justice is documented. The film does not shy from revealing all the facts, and there are some physical details in the case which do make for uncomfortable viewing, particularly the photos of the young boys bodies. Through archive footage we see how events unfolded back in 1993/4, with interviews from the victims' families and people involved in the trial speaking candidly and, in retrospect, shame. The facts of the case are laid out to us before they are pulled apart one by one supported by new evidence and more people coming forward to speak out who had not been heard from before. All signs pointed to the West Memphis Three being innocent of the murders, and as a convenient and quick way out for the police to close such a highly emotional and delicate case, and the real culprit being that of Terry Hobbs, stepfather to one of the young boys killed. The film points fingers, but in a considered and factual way, as DNA found at the scene is matched with Hobbs, and his nephew confides to his friends he overheard his uncle confessing to the crime. There are no direct interviews with Hobbs in the film - understandably - and whilst his culpability remains open to investigation (it's hard to see why this film would not act in this way), the real focus is on the West Memphis Three's appeal to be released, which they eventually are under the Alford Plea - a contradictory statement which goes above my knowledge of the legal system where you plead guilty but also not guilty at the same time. This way, the three men are freed but justice has not yet been served - not until the real killer has been caught. West of Memphis is such a vital documentary, vital to being made and vital that many people see it. Let us not underestimate the power of media in situations like this, where everybody involved is so sure of the cause and the need for a resolution - stars such as Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam), Henry Rollins and Johnny Depp are long time supporters of their case, and participate in this film (and indeed its distribution and festival appearances) doing all they can to help move things forward in a positive direction. Berg in the Q&A which followed also spoke out about the power of investigative journalism, and in a watered down news industry (she herself came from CNN) its most influential platform is now film documentaries. There are so many elements to this case it could be a work of fiction in itself - it's comprehensive at 147 minutes, but the dogged determination of Davis and fellow supporters keeps you rapt throughout. And if not, the alligator snapping turtles will soon grab your attention - Jesus Christ! Please see this at the earliest opportunity, and spread the word: I knew nothing about this beforehand, and now not only am I enlightened but my eyes have been well and truly wedged open.
I'M STILL RECOVERING. A bit like when I first came out of Take Shelter and couldn't breathe properly for ages afterward because I had been holding my breath for so long, with The Hunt the feeling was more akin to having someone put their hand inside your stomach and then wring the intestines. Needless to say, this film had a profound effect upon me, leaving me with the question: how can something so powerful make you not want to watch it ever again? At least with Take Shelter I was blown away by the atmosphere of the piece, and not long after desperate to re-visit it. Here, I honestly don't think I could sit through The Hunt again, as traumatising and difficult it is to watch. But it's an astonishingly brilliant film, propelled by a monumental performance from Mads Mikkelsen who plays Lucas, a nursery teacher accused of sexually abusing one of his young pupils. Set in a small Danish town, it's fascinating yet horrifying to see how this impulsive lie from a five year old can escalate. Lucas, as we see at the beginning of the film, is well-liked by the community and popular with the nursery kids, he has a loving son he is desperate to spend more time with and burgeoning romance with a cleaner at the nursery. He has a strong group of friends, and it's even more devastating that the lie comes from the youngest child of his best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen). The speed at which they all turn on him in light of these allegations is horrendous - anger will be just the first of many emotions that will encompass you watching this man fall into ruin. The only two people who stick up for him and maintain his innocence are his son Marcus (a brilliantly affecting debut from Lasse Fogelstrom) and his friend Bruun, who interestingly is childless. It's the parents who suddenly disregard the Lucas they have known all their lives and replace him with this monster figure, and all their hate has been fuelled by the nursery's owner and Lucas's boss Grethe. She is the one who picks up on young Klara's remark and twists it into something life shattering. Because we know Lucas is innocent it is near impossible to see Grethe's reasoning and how she was just acting on her instincts to protect the children - more glaringly we see an appetite for drama in her when she starts joining dots in her mind. It's almost as if she revels in the flurry of events which follow, as she informs Klara's parents, and then the whole nursery's parents, and this forms the catalyst of a witch hunt to bring Lucas to justice. Lucas meanwhile is played with a haunting sombreness by Mikkelson - instead of getting angry (like us viewers are!) and screaming his innocence, his shock of what has happened and the disloyalty of his friends and colleagues leaves him numb. Unable to be angry at Klara - she is only five, she cannot know what she has done - he pleads with her to tell the truth, only for her alarmed parents to banish him from their once welcome home. There's a moment when a confused Klara tells her mother, "I didn't mean what I said, it was just nonsense" (sic), and her mother soothingly tells her, "this did happen Klara" when I wanted to get up and smack every actor on the screen. Thomas Vinterberg is excellent in the little details which make this story all the more troubling for its truth to life. In the Q&A afterwards he spoke of how he had studied many real life cases in research for the script, and how the conversation between Klara and the man in the role of unstated social worker/counsellor is the exact transcription of an interview between a child and a carer, but he had "taken the worst bits out." Makes you shudder to the bone. Halfway through the film something terrible happens which tipped me into unbearable anguish and tears for the rest of the film (I won't reveal what it is here, but it's ominous from the off). The stand out scene of the film is a Christmas mass at the local church, in which Lucas stares down Theo, tears running down his cheeks, his eyes pleading for his best friend to believe him. And we are taken back to the very beginning of the film, where the jovial best friends are bantering to one another and Theo tells him, "I can tell when you're lying because your eyes twitch." Lucas' eyes are not twitching here. The ending is very key for me, because the friends I saw the film with interpreted it in a completely different way. I was sure what happens is imaginary and inside Lucas' head, whereas they were adamant that it had really happened. Unfortunately for me, Vinterberg has gone on record saying it really did happen, so my argument doesn't stand up anymore. But my question to you when you go and see this film - as you must - is what do you think?
The Hunt is out on November 30th, but catch it at the Leeds Film Festival sooner than that. IT'S MY FIRST FIVE CHEESE FILM OF THE YEAR!
John Dies at the End
Apologies, apologies for this one: never go into a 11.30pm screening after drinking cocktails. Especially in a cinema so warm and comfy... Yes I hate to say I wasn't as alert as I should have been for my LFF screening of John Dies at the End, even when director Don Coscarelli made a surprise appearance to introduce the film. But I want to stress that this was down to a woozy boozy blanket than it being a dullsville film. In fact, John Dies at the End is the complete opposite of dullsville - it's STARK RAVING LUNACY. It's the most fun and bizarre b-movie horror sci-fi film on a bad drugs trip you are likely to see, well, in your life. From the very first 'scenario' where our hero Dave (Chase Williamson) and his best friend John (of the title - played by Rob Mayes) go to investigate a weird supernatural presence at a young girl's house and it turns out to be a monster made of raw meat who they end up bargaining with - it sets the tone for the rest of the film. If you're not in, get out. It's a bit like Supernatural on acid. The pacing is zippy, the writing hilariously off-kilter, and you've just got to admire - if not worry - about the sheer imagination of David Wong (real name Jason Pargin), the editor of cracked.com who started this adventure as a web series which grew such in popularity that here it is now in cinemas. With a plot impossible to describe coherently with a straight face, let's just say things begin to go awry for Dave and John when they take the drug soy sauce and are suddenly open to other dimensions, creatures, and psychic powers. Dave even has trouble explaining it all to journalist Arnie (a game Paul Giamatti) and what's real and not real is an ever present state of mind. I was lucky enough to be in an audience of die hard John Dies at the End and Don Coscarelli fans, so the mood in the cinema and the peels of laughter and spontaneous applause throughout the film's barrel of bonkers was a joy, from Dave speaking on a hot dog phone to the best world saving dog in the history of the universe. Constantly surprising and hilarious, don't try to thread things together as you watch as it will only hamper the purity of your enjoyment. Just let go and prepare to be weirded out: I can't wait to have a proper, proper go (again) when John Dies at the End comes to the Leeds Film Festival next month.