Film Review: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory

Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's conclusion to their trilogy about the plight of three wrongly convicted men has an intriguingly new, if bittersweet, slant. It’s an understatement to say that the documentary format comes off a lot better than t

Documentarians Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory may not be the first film to force the release of the falsely imprisoned (that credit goes to Errol Morris and The Thin Blue Line). But they are unique in obsessively making three films over a 15-year time span to right a perceived wrong, adjusting their interpretation of events during the filmmaking process, and maintaining artistic integrity while still helping to keep the case alive.

Three young boys were murdered in 1993 in West Memphis, Arkansas, with the resulting incarceration of three teen “suspects”—Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. The first film, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), wondered if the teenagers were railroaded by the prosecution’s portraying them as part of a satanic cult. (They liked dark clothes and the Wicca religion, tended to isolate themselves and listened to heavy-metal music.) Also, there was pressure for a conviction in a fear-ridden small town panicked by the slaying of children (and what looked like cult dismemberment). Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000) instead suggested that John Mark Byers, the adoptive stepfather of one of the murder victims, was the actual culprit.

With the advance of DNA testing, which eventually clears the incarcerated “West Memphis 3,” the current film throws suspicion on Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of another of the murdered boys. Amazingly, Berlinger and Sinofsky capture both men on camera, Hobbs in part by being stuck in the morass of court testimony. (In one of the film’s many ironies, he sued Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks for defamation of character for her support of the jailed threesome.) A medical examiner’s drily delivered courtroom analysis also reveals that wild animals actually mutilated the corpses, shown in a gruesome though not sensationalistic “re-enactment” of the original murder scene. Not to worry if the third is the only one of the trilogy you see: A multi-layered structure encapsulates the first two films. Testimony, trials, appeals and prison interviews are revisited in a clever edit by Alyse Ardell Spiegel—just enough to get the outrageous picture, but not enough to bludgeon you.

The contrast between the locked-up teens, now middle-aged men, may actually be the most shocking thing in the film. The most articulate of the three is Echols, now married with a child. One of the many fascinating tributaries the film doesn’t fully follow (it can’t really) is that a woman doing legal research on the case fell in love with the jailed, disarmingly charming Echols—the not-uncommon phenomenon of an intellectual woman smitten with a prisoner. Her commitment to the case is augmented by various celebrity supporters, some of whom we see: Maines, Johnny Depp, singer Eddie Vedder. Director Peter Jackson paid many of the legal bills, though the cause became so well-known that ordinary citizens gave small donations.

The somewhat slow-minded Misskelley is particularly poignant explaining his forced false confession, rendered even more moving by his determinedly upbeat stance after almost two decades in the clinker. (This is not entirely new territory for Berlinger and Sinofsky, acclaimed for their 1992 documentary Brother’s Keeper about a “murder” involving four elderly brothers in rural upstate New York, and an affidavit obtained under some duress.)

Paradise Lost 3 falls satisfyingly into the familiar documentary territory of exposé, sometimes calling for social change. Yet it may have created its own meta form in referring to the earlier docs, and in changing the tone of the already completed film with a coda about the threesome’s sudden release. Work-in-progress, indeed. The filmmakers are in the doc, not intrusively so, but not hiding their sympathy for their subjects either. Their presence points up some local animosity toward the visiting liberal media shining a well-financed, encroaching beam of light on this community. As the filmmakers said in a recent interview at the New York Film Festival, they were the resented “Jew boys from New York.” It’s a mini-reflection of the fear of “the other’ which underlined the initial arrest.

One huge (met) challenge was to explicate the obscure law which finally sprang the three: "Alford pleas," allowing them to plead guilty while maintaining their innocence. True to the documentary form in turning over rocks and filming what turns up, what comes crawling out may not be what you expect (as Errol Morris found out when the guy he helped spring ultimately sued him). Here, as the filmmakers have said, it’s only sort of a happy ending—one which shows the injustice of the legal system, for the actual crime may never be solved.

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory was named Best Documentary by the National Board of Review (considered a predictor of Academy Awards, with its dependably non-outré taste), and is on the ever-shrinking list of serious contenders for an Oscar nomination. The movie’s subjects may be taking some media bows, but that won’t make up for 18 years lost in prison.