Last month’s sudden release of the “West Memphis 3” after nearly 20 years of incarceration was a dramatic end to a case that’s still riddled with questions. The 1994 convictions of Damien Echols (who was sentenced to death), Jesse Misskelley and Jason Baldwin (both sentenced to life) were overturned by the obscure Alford Plea, which allowed them to plead guilty for killing three young children in the Arkansas woods while maintaining their innocence.
Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s widely popular 1996 HBO documentary “Paradise Lost: The Child Case at Robin Hood Hills” brought the case intense media attention, as well as support from celebrities and activists. Their 2000 follow-up, “Paradise Lost 2: Revelations,” tracked that uptick in attention to the case while wallowing in the boys’ ongoing captivity. The franchise, if you can call it that, has grown increasingly self-referential.
The latest events transpired so quickly that the filmmakers chronicling the saga couldn’t keep up. They were putting the finishing touches on “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” last month when the news forced them to change the ending. The unfinished version premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival a few days ago, ahead of the screening of the final cut that will take place at the New York Film Festival in October. It’s unfair to give a conventional review to something that amounts to a rough cut, but the existing version invites analysis for the way it expands on the existing material.
The “Paradise Lost” movies play a key role in the legacy of the West Memphis 3 by engineering the prisoners’ fame. “Paradise Lost 3” actively engages with the impact of the original documentary, opening with a 1994 newscast about Berlinger and Sinofsky while they were filming in Arkansas. More than a sequel, the movie is also a lengthy flashback that studies its roots. That decision might suggest pomposity, but for good reason.
As with the other installments, “Paradise Lost 3” contains two story strands woven together. Its intimate subplot revolves around the current lives of the convicted trio, who continue to profess their innocence and maintain hope for redemption. Misskelley reveals the clock tattoo on his bald scalp that lacks arms, representing the timeless nature of his daily existence. Echols married a woman 10 years earlier, an architect who was so moved by the first documentary that she traveled from New York to meet him, and has learned to embrace his off-kilter path. “I have an incredible life,” he says, having come along way from calling himself a “boogie man” at the conclusion of the first movie.
The movie’s larger concern involves greater precision. Details from each West Memphis 3 trial prove the absurd biases that led to their convictions, from a close-minded judge to jury foreman Kent Arnold, who swayed the initial jury’s decision. An “occult expert” used in the trial to cast an evil shadow on Echols’ gothic interests lacks any serious credentials.
Many of these injustices were glossed over in the earlier movies. The biggest problem with the “Paradise Lost” approach comes from the emphasis on the ineffective trial rather than material that might exonerate the prisoners. “Paradise Lost 3” responds to that concern, thanks to developments in crime scene research that have taken place since the earlier movies. New evidence brought by DNA analysis suggests the presence of Terry Hobbs, one of the murdered boys’ stepfathers, at the scene of the crime.
When Hobbs sued Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines for defamation of character after she wrote about his potential culpability online, the ensuing trial was videotaped, adding a new possible villain to the “Paradise 3” lore. This footage makes up for the filmmakers’ inability to bring cameras into any courtroom since the first film.
In addition to offering a deeper look at the West Memphis 3 case, “Paradise Lost 3” revisits its most colorful characters, particularly John Mark Byers, another eccentric stepfather whose offbeat anger stole the show in the preceding entries.By rambling on about the prisoners’ guilt every time the camera turned his way, he invited suspicion of his own guilt from dozens of interested parties. Since the new evidence was revealed, Byers remarkably changed his mind and has become an ardent defender of the convicted men’s innocence. One of the best scenes finds him reading a letter of gratitude that Echols wrote him from prison.
By now, you’re either wrapped up in the “Paradise Lost” series or oblivious to it; those in the latter category probably won’t perceive the third movie as anything more than an extended news special. However, there’s a natural progression that holds the trilogy together in a unique narrative rarely seen elsewhere.
“Paradise Lost 3” currently ends on the brink of a new evidentiary trial before revealing in a fleeting end credit that the trio was released in August. There’s obviously a big gap to fill here, and it’s unlikely that, for the final cut, the filmmakers will slip in a new climax, given that it took 18 years to get there. Produced in a TV-ready format, the “Paradise Lost” trilogy doesn’t always make for great cinema, but it’s weighted with a purpose that just got a whole lot heavier. Chances are good that the final cut won’t lighten the load.
Because this film is not completed, it will receive a criticWIRE grade at a later date.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Because of the new developments, HBO has decided to give “Paradise Lost 3” an awards-qualifying theatrical run. It should do solid business in limited released due to the media spotlight on the case, but clearly it’s biggest audience lies with TV viewers. Whether it faces major competition in awards season remains to be seen.