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NYFF ’11 Review: ‘Paradise Lost 3’ Is Utterly Compelling, But Still Ethically Messy At Times

by Drew Taylor
October 6, 2011 8:37 AM
7 Comments
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Few movies have a conclusion as out-of-nowhere, compelling and yet strange as the one featured in "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory." What makes this finale even more exceptional is the fact that the film is a documentary and that this unexpected coda wasn't dreamed up inside the head of an imaginative screenwriter, but a surprise twist that occurred in these dramatic real life events.

As the title denotes, this is the third "Paradise Lost" documentary that directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky have made, each one centering on the West Memphis Three – a trio of poor, white trash teenagers convicted in 1994 of murdering three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas.

Throughout the nearly twenty years since their what-seemed-like-very-suspect convictions, they've been fighting their verdicts and sentences with a large grassroots campaign that was launched after the first penetrating "Paradise Lost" documentary aired on HBO. Considering one of the convicted, the supposed ringleader Damien Echols, faced the death penalty, the urgency of the campaign only grew with each subsequent film and created a cause celebre. Everyone from Eddie Vedder to Johnny Depp to the Dixie Chicks spoke out against the hurried and dubious trial -- one that often times resembled a frenzied witch-hunt -- and more recently it was revealed that Peter Jackson was partly funding their legal defense (this isn't mentioned in the film and Vedder and Depp both contributed undisclosed sums as well).


If you're unfamiliar with the case, it essentially breaks down like this: three young boys were brutally tied-up and murdered and amid wild tales of Satanism, occult rituals and other hysterical voodoo, three young loners -- – Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin -- with an affection for heavy metal were arrested and eventually convicted for the murders.

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” chronicled the original trial, one that presented no physical evidence that tied the three teens to the murder. Forensics uncovered nothing that could link the boys and even more troubling – there was no blood found at the crime scene, suggesting the children were murdered elsewhere and their bodies dumped in the local Robin Hood woods. Instead prosecutors focused on circumstantial evidence; the fact that the teenagers were loners and outcasts, wore black, listened to heavy metal music, and one of them, the genuinely oddest and most disaffected of the bunch Damien Echols, admitted an interest in the Wiccan religion.

Because one of the boys’ bodies was missing his penis, fear gripped the local community and the murders quickly transformed into Satanic ritual slayings. With panic in the air and the impoverished boys possessing only meager defense funds, and more importantly a dubiously-acquired confession one of the boys later recanted – their convictions were a fait accompli.

While the second film ‘Revelations’ detoured into theories and eye-brow raising incidents that pointed at one of the fathers as the true perpetrator, ‘Purgatory’ once again focuses on the convicted, now in their mid 30s, sporting wrinkles and thinning hair (Misskelley, the mildly retarded one who was allegedly coerced into a confession has tattooed a faceless clock on the top of his bald head in hopes of dating it at the exact moment of when he’s freed).

If you haven't seen the original two films, you needn’t worry about being lost. The film's opening recaps the story and the footage is swiftly condensed– three young boys, found naked and tied up in the forest, some teenage boys the neighbors speculated were involved in devil worship found guilty, sloppy police work fueled by an incensed community, and a judge stubbornly unwilling to let the case be retried.

Playing out like an epic American crime saga, with dozens of individuals (everyone from parents of the murdered boys to lawyers pushing for admittance of DNA evidence) jockeying for what they believe is justice, the scope of ‘Purgatory’ is vast. The small town mob mentality, so vividly captured in footage from the first film, has mostly mellowed, with many of the same folks who craved bloody vengeance questioning their original ideas and turning their speculation elsewhere. One of the murdered boys' fathers – Mark Byers, the man accused by some in the second film -- has had a complete about face. In footage from the second film we see the angry man burning an effigy of the accused teenagers, sermonizing about how they'll "burn in hell." Now he publicly speaks out in their defense.

And now that modern DNA testing is an instrumental tool in crime solving and the West Memphis 3 campaign has secured enough funds to hire some of the most respected and important forensics scientists in the U.S., the reevaluation of evidence overwhelmingly points elsewhere. Since the same judges and administrators were still in power in the years since they were arrested, repeated requests to submit new information or stage a new trial were denied. Until, of course, the judge that delivered their guilty verdicts finally stepped down. That's when the gears begin to turn again, rusted-over and squeaky.

One of the most jaw-dropping segments of the documentary accounts what happened when Terry Hobbs, stepfather of Steve Branch, one of the murdered boys, decided to sue one of the Dixie Chicks over slander when she implied he could be responsible for the slayings (Hobbs’ DNA was imprecisely linked to the crime scene and Natalie Maines, lead singer of the band, made a remark about this new evidence on her website). This lawsuit opened up Hobbs to questioning and that footage is startling. Under oath, Hobbs claims that he didn't see the boys that day, says he is a nonviolent person (even though he beat up his wife and shot his brother-in-law), and has large gaps in his alibi for the night the boys were murdered. Suspicious indeed, but more importantly it raises more of the imperative reasonable doubt issues that were unfathomably ignored in the original trial. More significant, and something that made the prosecutors visibly quake – the damaging claims of jury tampering by the foreman.

Of course, before any of this damning new evidence could be presented – well, we won’t spoil it here, but in case you didn’t hear what happened in August, you can go here and read all about it. Suffice to say, some kind of justice was served, however, it’s bittersweet, not the victory the West Memphis Three desired and the State of Arkansas and the prosecutors, of course, admitted to no culpability.

And while this third and final documentary is completely compelling, real edge-of-your-seat stuff, it also offers up the most morally questionable aspect of the new film that has haunted the three documentaries all along – the blurred line between objective investigative journalism and outright activism, especially when the latter begins to, if not accuse, significantly considers you to point the fingers elsewhere.

In a case where hearsay and an unfair tainting of the jury pool by the same shared whispering put three innocent boys in jail for decades, the film sometimes dangerously veers close to doing the same (one can argue it already did in ‘Revelations’). In efforts to surface more reasonable doubts, ‘Purgatory’ somewhat suggests Hobbs could be responsible, insinuating just enough for you to draw your own conclusions without presenting contradictory evidence or any other new avenues of investigation.

It would be a rather huge, inexcusable misstep for a movie that argues for justice and transparency, if the critically-acclaimed documentaries hadn’t traveled in these muddy waters before. That’s not to say these tangents are defensible, it’s just to say they’ve been part of the fabric of these documentaries since at least the second film (and more importantly, the films never outwardly accuse anyone, but when documentary journalism and activism collide, things can get messy; in any case the intentions are noble).

While the picture concludes on a somewhat sour and hurried note – the epilogue that occurs after three chapters feels a bit rushed and tacked on, as it was just added in the last two months – it is a rousing, inspirational and emotional finale. Ultimately “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory “ is a triumphant tale of justice, forgiveness and healing. While the ethics in the third act are sometimes questionable, the epic sweep and sheer injustice, wrongdoing and outrage that the film conveys is remarkable – as is its power to affect positive change. [B+]

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7 Comments

  • The Real Compassionate Reader | October 14, 2011 6:51 AMReply

    I was just alerted to this site from a poster on a discussion board. So there is no confusion, the person posting above as "Compassionate Reader" is not me. I have posted for several years on several message boards as Compassionate Reader. I have not yet seen PL3 as I do not live in NY, so I cannot comment on the documentary at this time. I look forward to seeing it on HBO. However, I wanted to post this disclaimer so that anyone reading this blog who has seen me posting on a message board will not think that I've lost my mind or something. Thank you.

  • Errol Dawson | October 11, 2011 10:33 AMReply

    I thought the film did a great job of showing the injustice that still takes place in our Justice system. How many other wrongfully convicted men & women languish in our prison system?

    The WM3 are innocent and the killer, or killers, of three young boys remains at large. The passion that people like MediaLieDetector have should be used to pressure the WMPD to re-open the case and to do a public airing of all of the evidence. Justice has not been served in this case and the souls of three young boy are still not at peace.

  • Brenda Crank | October 10, 2011 10:18 AMReply

    As a long time supporter of the WM3, I do not have to ask someone why they would take a plea to be freed from prison after they had spent 18 years and 78 days behind bars for a crime they had no part in. They plead guilty, that's true. But seriously, if you know pleading innocent has done you no good whatsoever in the good old boy networking justice system of Arkansas, and someone says, you can still maintain your innocence and still accept the guilty verdict and GO HOME, especially if your time was spent on death row in solitary confinement. Jason was willing to stay and have his day in court but he wasn't willing to force Damien to spend another day in hell.

    Jessie Misskelley has a borderline IQ accompanied by other learning disabilities that made him easily manipulated by unscrupulous people bound and determined to get him to implicate himself and others in this crime. Anyone with any expertise in the matter can read his "confessions" and see how unreliable they are with regard to the facts proven by evidence. You don't have to be even mildly retarded to give a false confession, merely suggestible. For that matter once someone has given a false confession, they will often confess over and over because of the genuine relief they feel when they are no longer being pressured. After the police get what they want, they quit badgering, and you get to eat and/or sleep and it's just a huge relief. Many people with very high IQs will often succumb to this in a pressure situation and confess over and over again, swear on Bibles and even in front of their own attorneys.

    Those people trying so hard to hang on to the concept that these young men are guilty seem to be missing the reality that if the state of Arkansas really truly believed they ARE guilty, they would never have offered the Alford plea deal. Not if they wanted to continue to get elected to office.

  • TT | October 10, 2011 5:05 AMReply

    The first one to reoffend will be Misskelley, but it's probably Baldwin who will be the first to kill again.

  • MediaLieDetector | October 10, 2011 3:29 AMReply

    "there was no blood found at the crime scene"

    Not true. http://callahan.8k.com/wm3/img2/luminol_photos.html

    "Instead prosecutors focused on circumstantial evidence; the fact that the teenagers were loners and outcasts, wore black, listened to heavy metal music, and one of them, the genuinely oddest and most disaffected of the bunch Damien Echols, admitted an interest in the Wiccan religion."

    Disaffected? Have you seen Exhibit 500 of Damien Echols mental heath records?
    http://callahan.8k.com/wm3/img/exh500.html

    "more importantly a dubiously-acquired confession one of the boys later recanted"
    How exactly was it dubious? He failed a polygraph examination & then confessed to being present at the crime. MORE IMPORTANTEDLY, he went on to confess 3 additional times AFTER he was convicted, one of which was to his own attorney in private.
    http://callahan.8k.com/wm3/jmpc.html
    http://callahan.8k.com/wm3/jm_2_8_94_statement.html
    http://callahan.8k.com/wm3/jm_feb17.html

    "Misskelley, the mildly retarded one who was allegedly coerced into a confession"

    Mildly retarded? That is completely false. He was no more mildly retarded than he was mildly average.

    Keep spreading the misinformation. I've come to expect nothing less from the media.

  • Compassionate Reader | October 6, 2011 12:20 PMReply

    The producers of this documentary should be ashamed of what they are trying to create. Murderbilia. Making money off of the murder of 3-innocent children is what they are so proud of? The first documentary was okay, the second was really a wanker, the third, can I really stomach another flop? No. The three celebrity convicted child murderers just plead guilty to the murders. They should not be looked upon as heros, they are murderers. I don't understand why they are being celebrated? They are asking for exoneration, if so then why did they plead guilty IF they really have evidence that can prove they are innocent? That's what the supporters need to be asking.

  • Rick | October 6, 2011 9:41 AMReply

    "Poor white trash teenagers?"
    Are you fucking retarded?
    Fuck you. Uppity asshole.

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