By Caryn James | James on Screens October 10, 2011 at 12:30PM
The legal bargain that freed the West Memphis 3 after 18 years in prison is Lewis Carroll by way of Orwell. They proclaimed their innocence in court while pleading guilty to the murders they were accused of – a trick that prevents them from suing the state of Arkansas. (And what a suit that would have been.)
However nagging those guilty pleas are, though, their innocence had already been convincingly spread to the world by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s two HBO films about their case: Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996) and its sequel Revelations: Paradise Lost 2 (2000).
With the sharp, lucid, compelling new Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, the filmmakers were scrambling to keep up with the story - about wrongful convictions, and even more about the intersection of justice and media - but this time they were chasing a story they had helped propel in the first place. (The photo above shows Berlinger on the left and Sinofsky on the right, with the recently-freed Jason Baldwin.)
At the start, of course, there were the murders of three 8-year-old boys, found naked in the woods in West Memphis, Arkansas in 1993. Paradise Lost 3 smoothly recaps the events and the media hysteria of the time, using much previously unseen footage, and shows gruesome photos of the bodies, a reminder of how horrific the crime was. Amid gossip about Satan worship but no evidence, three teenagers - the town’s outsiders - were convicted of the killings, Damien Echols sent to death row, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley sentenced to prison for life.
Even back in ‘93, Berlinger and Sinofsky found a movie-ready story. They shaped it with artistry and passion - first to sort out the facts, and when they saw that the convicted men were scapegoats, to set things right – but they couldn’t have invented better dramatic elements. The small-town characters included the angry, sometimes vengeful families of the victims; one stepfather gave the filmmakers a blood-specked knife as a gift.
The accused were vivid characters. Misskelley, whose IQ is 72, confessed and implicated the others in what is now regarded as a forced confession: 12 hours long (only 45 minutes preserved on tape), no lawyer present, a time frame that kept shifting until he said what investigators wanted to hear.
Echols in particular has a presence made for the camera. His eyes are deep and enigmatic. His face has remained impassive and his voice low and steady from the very first days. He naturally stood out, but you have to wonder if he would have been such a target for the Satan-conspiracists if he hadn’t had the bad luck to be named Damien.
You can see Echols, along with his wife and Baldwin, in a recent CNN appearance with Piers Morgan. This clip is too much about Morgan, as usual, but the interview was fascinating.
The very name West Memphis 3 is a media-made creation, of course. Celebrities who spoke out about the men’s innocence - including Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp and Natalie Maines - helped make them famous. Paradise Lost 3 illustrates the impact of all that celebrity without being too self-reflexive. Berlinger and Sinofky’s relationship to the West Memphis 3 and to the town has always been slightly tangled: they are sympathetic to the men’s cause even as they insistently keep a non-hectoring, cinema verite approach.
The film, which was nearly complete before the plea deal, focuses on how newly-available DNA testing seems to clear the men (a fascinating section of the film) and on their grounds for another appeal because the jury considered evidence it shouldn’t have. But the serpent’s tail of media attention is what makes the film leap off the screen and onto the news pages. The impending release of the third film was one reason Arkansas pushed for a plea deal.
And when DNA evidence cast suspicion on one of the boys’ stepfathers - not the bloody-knife stepfather - he sued Maines for saying so publicly. Would a guilty man have sued? Well, maybe, if he had limited legal knowledge and a bad lawyer. At times the entire case seems to exist in some warped mirror-world where justice is driven by gossip and media attention.
The film’s great gaping hole is that it doesn’t explore any of the characters too deeply, including the West Memphis 3’s supporters and Lori Davis, who met and married Echols while he was in prison. The story is fraught with psychological depths that the film accepts at face value.
But then, deep psychology is not what the films are about. Like Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line, the Paradise Lost trilogy started out as a mystery movie about innocent men convicted of murder and ended up changing the socially-charged story it told.
The film will be shown at the New York Film Festival tonight (with the West Memphis 3 appearing in person; talk about media attention) and tomorrow, and after an Oscar-qualifying run later this year will be on HBO in January.