The only films to help rescue warm bodies from death row besides Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line, the Paradise Lost franchise is more than just cinema—and in ways many filmmakers can only dream about.
The facts on the ground remain: The West Memphis 3—Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr.—convicted on virtually no evidence of the murder of three Cub Scouts in 1993, were suddenly released via an absurdist legal maneuver this past August but largely due to the critical mass of support generated by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s first two Paradise Lost documentaries, both chronicling the case and its trails of fury. In the 15 years since Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills lifted a rock and introduced the world to West Memphis, Arkansas, the outrage machine that assembled around the case’s psychotic injustice grew slowly and, eventually, independently of Berlinger and Sinofsky’s project. Now, the trilogy rounds off, and this newest entry, robbed of the first films’ activist mojo by the movement they themselves created, scans more like a document of the documentation, another camera in the crowd. In an inescapable way, the third film ends up being about itself, about the series’ function in and around the campaign to free the WM3, alongside the marches and websites and Henry Rollins benefit concerts.
Things change, and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory will be, by the time the filmmakers retire or die, either the story arc’s Act 2 opener (let’s hope along with HBO doc czar Sheila Nevins that Paradise Lost 4 and 5 will go after the crime’s real perp), or the tale’s ambivalent, exultant-yet-depressing denouement. This installment was long in production, in fact, before the bizarre August liberation was announced, and has been amended, in a coda, to suit the occasion. Otherwise the focus is on the then-current, pre-August legal strategies planned by lawyers and paid for by celebrity supporters including Peter Jackson and Eddie Vedder. The tipping point comes with new DNA testing, which finally reveals no links whatsoever between the convicts and the crime.
If you’re familiar with the previous films and the case in general, Purgatory can spin its wheels, summing up the history with old footage and evoking a kind of 7 Up sequel from hell (though newbies will appreciate the context). But Sinofsky and Berlinger have some new meat to roast—namely, appeal-killer Judge David Burnett and the original trial’s self-appointed Satanism expert Dale Griffis, returning to them years later and forcing them, if at least by implication, to own their roles in such rampaging evil stupidity. The first films offered alternate suspects and scenarios, but now the drama back home has shifted away from criminal suspicion of John Mark Byers, the gunslinging, Christ-invoking, beetle-browed career-crook stepfather of one of the victims, who now uses his almighty mouth to stump for the three convicts’ release and accuse at every opportunity another West Memphis resident, Terry Hobbs, stepdad to another of the victims. (The fiction film version announced by Atom Egoyan offers some rip-snorting acting opportunities, but the only enlistee as of yet is Reese Witherspoon as abused-victim mom Pam Hobbs.)
Terry Hobbs lurks around this new film’s edges like a stalker, still saying the WM3 are guilty as hell and emerging as a viable suspect, thanks to suggestive DNA testing and a defamation lawsuit he brought against celeb advocate Natalie Maines, which allowed lawyers to quiz him on his shaky alibi and history of haymaker violence. It’s a haunting question, 18 years later, how such a monstrously public triple murder, surrounded by a cast of characters this foolish, could go not only unsolved but essentially uninvestigated.
Not that someone won’t decide now to pursue truth and exact justice extra-legally, a prospect for which Sinofsky and Berlinger might well pine. For now, the trilogy represents a unique commerce between life and movies. Of the myriad ways we have of looking at Paradise Lost, this is the most indelible: Fifteen years ago, one could have (and some did) sniffed at two young filmmakers exploiting others’ misfortune for fame’s sake, but history has made Sinofsky and Berlinger genuine heroes. “Absolutely poverty-stricken white trash,” is how a now-35-year-old Echols describes his town to the filmmakers, maintaining that West Memphis would have killed him outright “if you guys weren’t there at the beginning, getting it all on tape.” It’s impossible to argue with him, getting to know this little slice of heaven as we have through the films.
Sinofsky and Berlinger have naturally strived to treat the Arkansans with empathy and respect, but as an extended film, Paradise Lost stands as a hold-your-breath study of an America politicians don’t know, a cataclysmic trailer-park wasteland of ignorance, poverty, and barely controlled bile, where the tragic cycle of dumb, fucked-up kids going toe-to-toe with dumb, fucked-up adults and losing every time rolls inexorably onward.
In 1996, I wrote a piece in the Voice detailing the outrageous calamities, arrests, gunfights, killings, and rank iniquities that beset West Memphis and virtually all of the films’ characters in the two and a half years between the convictions and the first film’s release, and it was enough to fill a few more movies. (One of Purgatory‘s grace notes is the remarkable degree to which Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley, after nearly two decades in stir, are far more educated and eloquent than anyone back home.) Thanks to the films and the TV camera crews that followed, West Memphis doesn’t seem to be quite the marginalized backwater on incremental auto-destruct it used to be. With its air of resolution, its herd of lawyers, and its more media-savvy residents, the new film is more informational than resonant. But you can still sense a vacuum, a rat pit of stories waiting to be unearthed. The dark something that triggered the whole ordeal in West Memphis is still out there.