Amour and West of Memphis

Love at the end of the road, hope for the end of a huge injustice.


What a difference a New Year's Day makes. Over the last few weeks we've been endlessly jostled by contending blockbusters: Zero Dark Thirty, Les Miz, Django Unchained, Peter Jackson's sprawling Hobbit opus. Now, suddenly, we find ourselves abandoned once more in the movie graveyard of January, traditional burial ground for pictures that all but announce their insufficiency.

Consider the only two features opening this weekend. One is a cheapie horror flick called Texas Chainsaw 3D. This film was not screened for reviewers, for reasons that I think are sufficiently telegraphed in its title. Then there's A Dark Truth, a movie about "a former CIA operative turned political talk show host." This one stars Andy Garcia and Eva Longoria, and is apparently freighted with a message of environmental concern. Anyone who might wish to witness this production can already do so on VOD.

Instead of wasting time on these films, let's focus instead on two movies that are already out in limited release, and now in the process of expanding (at least somewhat) across the country. One of these is Amour, a soul-wringing film by the fearlessly difficult Austrian writer-director Michael Haneke. The movie has already won the top prize at Cannes, and is now Austria's submission for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Oscars. Here, Haneke, a master of icy appraisal and the unflinching lockdown shot, closely contemplates an elderly Parisian couple at the very end of their lives.

Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), both in their eighties, are retired music teachers, entirely devoted and long content in their large, comfortable apartment. One day at breakfast in their kitchen, tapping at soft-boiled eggs, Anne suddenly goes blank—stops speaking or in any way responding to her husband's presence. She eventually snaps back, but has no recollection of this lapse. Her decline quickly escalates—paralysis, strokes, mounting incapacitation. Anne makes Georges promise not to consign her to a nursing home, and he undertakes to tend to her on his own—a burden that grows heavier and ever more heartbreaking as the story proceeds.

Trintignant (Z and The Conformist) and Riva (of the 1959 New Wave classic Hiroshima, mon amour) are, for want of a fresher phrase, icons of French cinema. Now both in their eighties themselves, they demonstrate a unique engagement with this emotionally withering material. The movie confronts the indignities and humiliations of old age, and the inexorable dwindling of life, with a steely candor. Asked by the couple's visiting daughter (Isabelle Huppert) what will become of her mother, Georges is wearily direct. "It will go steadily downhill for a while," he tells her, "and then it will be over." Love is all he has left, and we wonder how long it will be enough. A great film.

West of Memphis might be seen as a summation of the events chronicled by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky in their Paradise Lost documentaries. That trilogy of films helped draw national attention to the fate of the West Memphis Three, a trio of hapless teenagers in West Memphis, Arkansas, who were convicted in 1994 of the "Satanic" murder and mutilation of three eight-year-old boys. Two of the defendants, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, were sentenced to life in prison; the third, Damien Echols, was sentenced to death.

The earlier documentaries appeared between 1996 and 2011, and raised very large questions about the way in which the case had been prosecuted, and about the dubious "evidence" with which the verdicts had been obtained. In 2005, the story came to the notice of New Zealand director Peter Jackson and his partner, Fran Walsh. Flush with profits from their Lord of the Rings trilogy, which earned more than a billion dollars worldwide, Jackson and Walsh determined to fund a new examination of the case, hiring lawyers, investigators, and forensic experts to unearth new evidence, the most startling of which turned out to be in the area of DNA. But this new inquiry was repeatedly frustrated by the intransigence of Arkansas judges and prosecutors, who were determined to maintain the clearly flawed original verdict. Finally, in 2011, after 18 years of incarceration, the West Memphis Three were allowed to enter Alford pleas—maintaining their innocence, but not contesting the verdicts that put them away—and were finally freed.

To direct West of Memphis, Jackson and Walsh chose Amy Berg, whose Deliver Us from Evil—an enraging 2006 documentary about a child-molesting Roman Catholic priest—displayed a rare dedication to righting terrible wrongs. She has done a superb job of assembling the huge welter of facts in the case and illuminating them with human detail—centrally the relationship between Echols (who became a Buddhist in prison) and an extraordinary woman named Lorri Davis. Davis was an early supporter of Echols who moved to Arkansas to campaign for his release. Over the course of much conversation, they fell in love, and in 1999 were married in prison. It would be a dozen years before they could finally be together. 

Berg trains a harsh light on the astounding injustice that was done to the three young men. At the end, she all but nails a man—never interviewed by police—who strongly appears to be the real killer. The movie concludes, for now, on the brink of complete exoneration for the West Memphis Three. The filmmakers say their investigation continues, and that further breakthroughs will be edited into this movie. Judging by the seemingly incontrovertible evidence they've assembled here, that happy expansion may not be far off.