Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 2011)

With Paradise Lost: The Child Murders of Robin Hood Hill (1996), directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky explored the particulars of an Arkansas murder case involving three young men. The filmmakers had unprecedented access to the case, where they filmed various points of the investigation and the courtroom hearing itself. Upon viewing the picture, it was immediately understood was that the three young men, Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols, and Jessie Misskelly, were wrongly accused of the crime. Insignificant details like clothing, music preferences, and religion played a pivotal role in their conviction. By the film’s end, Misskelly and Baldwinwere given life sentences, while Echols was sentenced to death.

Four years later, Berlinger and Sinofsky kept the case alive with Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000). The documentary explored the widespread affect that the initial film had, whereupon interest on the case reached a national level. Berlinger and Sinofsky explored the problematic investigative techniques utilized by West Memphis police, and the growing concern that John Mark Byers, a victim’s stepfather, was perhaps the killer. The documentary was problematic, largely for the hypocritical insinuations it made of Byers, but it succeeded in so far as addressing the growing concern of sentencing a man to death despite the lacking evidence.

InParadise Lost 3: Purgatory, Berlinger and Sinofsky bring the trilogy to close, as the discovery of DNA evidence excluding the West Memphis Three has been entered for appeal. For those familiar with the initial two films, there’s not a whole lot of new ground to explore here – despite the introduction of DNA evidence, the case and the people involved have been dwelling in a period of stagnation. But this period of stagnation allows the audience to grasp the severity of the case. Berlinger and Sinofsky keep their eye averted from the West Memphis Three for most of the earlier portion of the film, instead delving into the history of the case. But when we do see Baldwin, Echols, and Misskelly, there’s a level of emotional gravitas to the situation that is hard to ignore. The three exhibit weariness on their faces, yet their conviction toward being freed gives them a remarkably optimistic glow. Still, as Echols explains that he has arthritis and Misskelly reminisces about times with his father, the injustice on display becomes difficult to handle – these guys have essentially spent half their lives imprisoned for a crime they did not commit.

Berlinger and Sinofsky examine various aspects of the criminal investigation that weren’t elaborated on in the previous films, all serving to reinforce the notion that the Arkansas police and judicial system refuses to be wrong on their conviction, despite the mounting evidence against them. But as with Revelations, Berlinger and Sinofsky attempt to play detective by scrutinizing Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of a victim. The case mad against Hobbs is somewhat stronger than that made against Byers, but the accusations are too broad and far-reaching, all of which add to a disapprovingly hypocritical tone to the picture.

Analyzing the pictures on a whole though, it can’t be argued that the films are of a rare variety. They initiated social awareness of a case that would have undoubtedly been forgotten. And while Berlinger and Sinofsky are hardly the most astute filmmakers, their unpolished technique lends itself to the material. Disregarding any analysis of filmmaking, the simple fact is that the film directly saved an innocent person from being killed. That, in itself, is a remarkable achievement.

Rating: 7/10

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky, 1996)

The title track of Metallica’s …And Justice for All album serves to highlight a lot of what goes on in Paradise Lost. The track, written by James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, and Kirk Hammett, notes:

The Ultimate in Vanity Exploiting Their Supremacy I Can't Believe the Things You Say I Can't Believe I Can't Believe the Price You Pay Nothing Can Save You

What Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky successfully convey in their documentary is a sense of injustice within the legal system. This sense of injustice serves to illustrate how a media circus can help shape and warp the minds of those watching, as well as excuse facts in favor of visceral emotions. Perhaps most telling is how Paradise Lost paints a picture of a town that demonizes the other– those in positions of power are capable of exercising their hegemonic dominance over those without.

On May 5th, 1993, three 8-year-old boys were tortured and killed in West Memphis, Arkansas. The nature of the crime is particularly gruesome – the boys were raped, with their genitals removed in what was construed as a sort of satanic ritual. After a month long investigation, three young men were charged – Damien Echols (age 18), Jessie Misskelly (age 17) and Jason Baldwin (age 16). Media reports dictated that Echols had drank the children’s blood (as a sort of haphazard reason for why there was no blood found at the crime scene) along with reporters noting that genitals were found in a glass jar in Echols’ room. There was no factual basis behind any of these claims.

Yet the parents of the deceased and the community of West Memphis consumed such media reports without question.

This is the preliminary idea that Berlinger and Sinofsky present in Paradise Lost, wherein we understand how media attention can shape the minds of the involved and the vicarious. But as the film becomes more involved in the trial itself, we begin to understand how images of adolescent divergence can work against you. The case made against Damien Echols was simple – he’s different. He wears black, listens to Metallica, and checked out some books on Wiccan culture from the library. These arbitrary details served as pieces of evidence against Echols. He would be sentenced to death by lethal injection. Jessie Misskelly and Jason Baldwin, whose crime was largely based on their association with Echols, were given life sentences.

Evidence against the three was scant. Jessie Misskelly, with an IQ of 72, was forced to sit through a 10-hour interrogation, wherein only the final minutes of the interrogation were recorded. His confession is dubious at best – the details of the crime span throughout a day, with leading questions constructing his story. The nature of the crime exceeds the knowledge of the three suspects as well – the precision and professionalism with which the crime was conducted is simply out of the hands of teenagers. But scapegoats needed to be found. What better way to remove the socially deviant from the world than to charge them with such a crime? It’s a depressing thought, but it’s one that becomes a reality when watching Paradise Lost.

Paradise Lost operates as both a scathing critique on a flawed system as well as a piece of compelling cinema. The all-encompassing worldview in which Berlinger and Sinofsky view the case is amazing – we see the trial, lawyers talking amongst each other, reporters dictating the news, and parents grieving. Yet even with that, there feels like necessary details are missing throughout the film’s two and a half hour runtime – what are their alibis? Under what circumstances did Misskelly give his confession in the first place? Such details seem intentionally omitted, giving me the impression that the filmmakers are attempting to steer you in a particular direction.

Given the linearity of the film, the cinematic qualities of Paradise Lost lend more to fiction than reality –the twists and turns that the trial takes are so incredibly difficult to accept. This is obviously due to my own understanding of the case, along with how the filmmakers portrayed the three accused. I’m able to sympathize for their case not so much out of their individual characters, but rather, out of how the case was mishandled. Evidence against the accused is nonexistent. Professionals were portrayed by the media as invaders and subsequently demonized. Anything resembling sound logic seemed to work against the Echols. Nothing about the case presented against him, Misskelly, or Baldwin was convincing in the slightest. Doubt lingers in every which way one looks at the case. The chorus of Metallica’s …And Justice for All sums it all:

Justice Is Lost Justice Is Raped Justice Is Gone

Rating: 8/10