When the West Memphis Three were freed just a wee bit before Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's third film about their plight ("Paradise Lost 3") was about to hit the festival circuit, people were again reminded of the brass strength of cinema. After the first of the trilogy was aired on HBO, the public was wooed and spoke out against their conviction, with loud voices such as Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder bringing even more heat to the topic (with some celebrities even helping to fund the legal defense team). We often forget that film can help elicit change -- maybe it's our general apathy or maybe we've been conditioned to turn away at whatever new "issues" doc is at our door, that often speak directly to the choir. But let's not forget "Super Size Me" helped kick the fast food chain's extra large size to the curb, "Bowling For Columbine" got KMart to stop selling bullets, and most unforgettably, master filmmaker Errol Morris' "The Thin Blue Line" set a wrongly convicted man free. Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh's "Scenes Of A Crime" shares much of the latter film's DNA, focusing on a questionable murder confession by an unemployed upstate New Yorker.
Adrian Thomas's four-month old lay in a hospital, brain dead and on the verge of death. The police suspect the goliath had unintentionally tried to kill the boy by throwing him a bit too hard into the crib, putting their story together based off of a rash statement received by an overworked doctor they confronted in the midst of the baby's arrival. Thus begins a ten hour interrogation with the department trying their damndest to get Adrian to confess, employing various techniques such as pretending to sympathize with him ("You're overworked, they think you're a loser, maybe one day you just lost it") and lying to him about a myriad of things (including telling him there's a chance to save the baby, which there never was). When we're shown a clip of an officer instructing the suspect to throw a binder as hard as he threw his son, the object lands on the ground with a hard thud. They have a shady technique, but it may have just proved that the father had mistaken his strength and really murdered his own kin.
Except for the fact that the autopsy shows no signs of head injury, and that there indications that the baby had an infection, specifically sepsis. The filmmakers delve further into the case and reveal an alarming amount of information: A clip of the interview shows the cop making Adrian throw the binder a few times, directing him to do it better. The confession signed by him was written by the police, and in the clip of his admission, he states that he's only admitting to the crime to protect his wife from being a suspect and going to jail on similar flawed evidence. These officers don't necessarily want the truth, they want whatever supports their theory.
Babcock and Hadaegh intercut interviews with the police, jury, and defense with video footage culled from the entire ten hour session with Adrian and the police. They continually poke holes in the statements of those who believe him to be guilty, statements which seem to be nothing more than gut-feelings as opposed to actual fact, even when the proof stacks against them: in one clip, an officer states that he must be guilty because he coldly talks about his kid never by name, only referring to him as "my son." But when their determined interrogations prevent him from ever seeing his offspring in the hospital, Adrian breaks into a bawl lamenting the fact that he can't even see his own child. Strong editing goes a long way, and this is some of the best seen in a doc all year.
Now despite all of this, the filmmakers never make the people who believe the accused is actually guilty seem like idiots. Though evidence points otherwise, the two directors give them respect and allow them to speak their mind without any interference. Movies like these can get awfully confident, so it's refreshing to see the pair lend an ear to people they think are flat-out wrong.
Starting powerful and unrelenting, "Scenes of a Crime" is a riveting experience without the cheekiness, poppy sensibilities, and silly animated sequences we've come to be too familiar with in this subset of political/social documentaries. Instead, the directors take a cue from Morris and find strength in fantastic interviews and a subtle style. You won't find a better true crime documentary this year. 'Scenes' is on the festival circuit now, and if it's playing in your area, you better damn well see it. [A]