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MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: PARADISE LOST 3: PURGATORY Offers Only a Fleeting Sense of Relief for the West Memphis Three

Television
by Matt Zoller Seitz
January 12, 2012 6:59 PM
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HBO Newly-freed West Memphis Three member Damien Echols (center) with filmmakers Joe Berlinger (l) and Bruce Sinofsky.

By Matt Zoller Seitz

Press Play contributor

By all rights, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (HBO, 9 p.m. Eastern) should feel more triumphant than it does. It is, after all, about the release of the West Memphis Three, men who were imprisoned — wrongly, it now seems — for murdering and mutilating three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, nearly two decades ago. When convicted killers Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelly, Jr. were sentenced back in 1993, they were mere boys themselves, high school kids with pimply skin and uncertain voices.

Thanks in large part to the efforts of Free the West Memphis Three, a legal defense fund, the once seemingly impregnable case against them fell apart, exposed as circumstantial and shoddy and tainted by ineptitude and bureaucratic self-protection. When Berlinger and Sinofsky visited West Memphis in 1996's Paradise Lost, it was the story of a court case, pure and simple, and the filmmakers viewed it with an ominous and slightly clinical detachment. By the time they made their follow-up, 2000's Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, the trio were already starting to seem like victims of a witch hunt. When they're finally let go at the end of Paradise Lost 3 — the result of a bizarre plea-bargain arrangement that I'll get into shortly — there is a sense of relief and a surge of sentiment, but it's fleeting, and in the end it's eclipsed by a sense of emotional, physical, and spiritual exhaustion. Berlinger and Sinofsky titled this movie before the trio found out they were finally going free, but the word "Purgatory" still fits, because it encapsulates their predicament over the last eighteen years. The trio was condemned not just to rot in prison, but to wait for a resolution, an exoneration, that most people figured would never come.

To read the rest of the review at New York Magazine's Vulture web site, click here.

A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for New York Magazine and the founder of Press Play. 

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