Directed by Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky
Starring Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin
When you think of classic movie trilogies you probably think of the Star Wars trilogy, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, or maybe the first three Indiana Jones films. Not many people mention the Paradise Lost trilogy and they probably should at least give it some consideration. If you don’t know the story of the West Memphis Three you may simply want to skip to the last paragraph of this review in order to avoid spoilers. These events were all over the news so as I write the review I’m assuming you already know what happened. If you don’t, then skip ahead, decide whether you want to watch this film or all three, and return here and share what you think with me.
This film starts with a recap of the previous two before leading into what is perceived to be the final chapter of the story. So by recapping the first two films here I’m in essence covering the first two thirds of the film.
The first Paradise Lost, title Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills was a true benchmark in documentary film making. The original film aired on HBO in 1996 and it profiled three teenage boys accused of brutally murdering three other younger boys. The mutilated bodies of the boys were found in a shallow creek in West Memphis, Arkansas. The three teen boys were linked to the crime via satanic rituals. As dumb as that may sound at this point in American history the idea of Satanic rituals and even murder was at an all time high, coming off the heavy metal years, a form of music that was also connected to Satanism at the time. One of the three boys confessed to the crimes. The documentary begins as the trial was also beginning. The filmmakers gained unprecedented access to the legal teams on both sides of the case, they covered the courtroom drama and broke the proceedings up by interviewing nearly everyone connected with the murdered boys and those accused of doing the killing. The film was gripping and emotionally challenging. The film features crime scene photos and videos that brought the horror of the crime home and engendered true pain to me when I saw the film for the first time. The band Metallica became involved in the events only because they believed the boys innocent and they contributed their music to the film, which made it all even more dark and sad.
It’s impossible for a documentary filmmaker to craft a film with true objectivity. There must be some passion for a subject in order to want to spend countless hours covering it for a film that you are likely to make no money from. With that said as the film progresses and the filmmakers become more invested in the subject you can tell that they believe the trial to be in many ways a farce. By the end you may have questions too? Was the police work handled properly? Was the trial taken seriously enough? Did the politicians want a scape goat and they found it in these boys or did these Goth kids with troubled pasts commit the crime? At the end of that film the verdicts are passed down and it doesn’t seem to matter what anyone thinks. Paradise Lost is easily one of the most important and effective documentary films ever made.
In real life stories don’t usually end until we die and sometimes they don’t even end there. Documentaries just have to stop at some point. Paradise Lost returns to the story of the Memphis three in 2000 to follow their maddening appeals process and the work of an internet advocacy group called “Free the West Memphis Three”. More importantly they follow up on one of the kid’s stepfather, Mark Byers. Byers was a particularly creepy individual during the first film. He actually ended up involving the filmmakers when he gifted them a pocket knife that had blood on it. There was new evidence during the appeal of bite marks on one of the mutilated bodies. In the time since the previous film Mark Byers had all of his teeth removed. The filmmakers are embroiled in the process now and the first film has had a profound effect on the town, the victims, and those accused. The documentary actually becomes somewhat personal but the filmmakers do a good job of still keeping themselves out of the film unless it’s completely necessary that they be mentioned or included. There’s no real ending to this film, it just asks questions that the courts aren’t asking and shows the stonewalling that is going on in regard to the Memphis Three. It’s real life and it’s dramatic.
Finally this year the filmmakers returned for what will probably be a final look at this story. Two of the kids had been sentenced to life in prison and Damien had been sentenced to death so the final push to save his life was on from many directions. Even the Dixie Chicks, a country music group, and actor Johnny Depp came out in support of the West Memphis Three. The Save the West Memphis Three group is still in full effect and one of them has even married the now in his 30’s Damien Echols. At the beginning of the recap we once again see the horrifying video footage of the murdered children in the creek bed and I was immediately nauseous and emotionally jolted. It may seem like exploitation but the truth is that with this entire circus going on the filmmakers never want us to forget what the film is truly about. Who committed this brutal crime? A team of experts descended upon the small Arkansas town to take advantage of a new law that allowed DNA evidence to get a case reconsidered. A hair was found on one of the bodies that could now prove that the boys weren’t involved or that the evidence that did convict them was completely circumstantial. A new figure, possible other murderer had also come to light and warranted consideration. The new investigations were followed as well as profiles executed to show what the events of the last 17 years had done to the families and the town.
Enough evidence was gathered to probably get the boys, now men, a new trial. They geared up for a new fight that they would probably win because by today’s standards the circumstantial evidence compared to the hard DNA evidence wouldn’t convict them, or so they believe. As they prepared for the big fight, one that might take more years but they that they really had potential to win the state does something unexpected that gives the boys what they want while forcing the boys to do exactly what they don’t want to do. This part I won’t spoil, I won’t give away. The ending of this film was completely devastating. These three men have fought from prison for nearly half their lives and the eventual outcome isn’t satisfying and even with what seems like a layer of finality the story still isn’t over. I actually wanted to break down with Jason Baldwin who made the ultimate sacrifice to save his friend. The story is maddening and sad, it’s real life.
This film is the least objective of the three. This time around the filmmakers aren’t really showing both sides. They are simply profiling the three men in prison and all of the efforts going on to save their lives. The first film did look at both sides but as the story began to feel more and more like one of those horror films where everyone knows the truth except a few characters on screen the director’s decided to stop trying to play at both sides and just tell the story of the Memphis Three. If there’s one complaint it might be that the majority of the film is recapping the first two. At the same time the recapping is used as threads to tie events from those three films to current happenings so even that is a nitpick because the filmmakers handled it well. The true issue is that if you haven’t seen the first two films these recaps short sheet the overall story a bit. They’d have to though: we aren’t watching Lord of the Rings here. The movie can only be so long. This film does put a cap on a story that has been ongoing for 17 years and while it isn’t satisfying it is real life.
This is a documentary so expecting reference quality video is a mistake. With that said the images shot by the filmmakers specifically for this film have good color and an overall solid television video appearance. There is low quality deposition video and archival footage that varies in quality but overall the image is acceptable considering the type of film.
Again audio can vary drastically depending on age of the footage and the way it was shot. For the most part everything is clean enough to understand here and that’s about all you can expect considering the mix of media types and age of some of the footage.
The Packaging and Bonus Features
The single disc release features a standard amaray case with a gradiated image of yearbook pictures that turns into the name of the film. It’s not special in any way but it is consistent artistically with the previous films’ DVD releases.
First up for bonus features is a series of deleted scenes. There’s one deleted scene from the first film and the rest are from the third one. All of these scenes are fascinating but they mostly don’t lead anywhere so it’s obvious why they were cut.
There’s a press day panel that should have been provided uncut but instead it’s cut into sound bites from the West Memphis Three and the two filmmakers. Good stuff, I wanted more. There’s a bit more from the filmmakers in an additional interview with them. These are interesting guys who’ve been through the whole thing the last 17 years so they have a lot to say; probably a lot more than is included in this all too brief featurette. Finally there are text based bios for the filmmakers.
There should have been a lot more in the way of bonus features on this disc including but not limited to a full length audio commentary. What we have is better than is often provided on documentary releases though.
Paradise Lost: Purgatory is at its core such a sad film. Three 2nd graders weren’t just murdered; they were tortured and killed in the worst of ways. Then three other children were blamed and made to pay for it for the rest of their lives in one way or another. This film is epic, it’s moving, it’s shocking, and it’s well executed. I do hope this story doesn’t end here though. There are still too many unanswered questions. See this film but see the previous two first.
Overall (Not an Average) 8/10
The Movie 9.5/10
The Video 7/10
The Audio 6/10
The Packaging and Bonus Features 6/10
Overall (Not an Average) 8/10