“Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” premiered in September at the Toronto International Film Festival in an unfinished form because the film’s real ending arrived, unexpectedly, a few weeks earlier. The men known as the “West Memphis 3,” imprisoned while teenagers for crimes they likely didn’t commit, spent 18 years behind bars. In August, they entered a trio of “Alford pleas,” relying on a little-known law that allowed them to plead guilty while maintaining their innocence. Sentenced to time served, they went free that day. That meant 36-year-old Damien Echols evaded the death penalty; Jesse Misskelley and Jason Baldwin were released from their life sentences.
Their abrupt liberation brought a saga of injustice to an apparent close. At the same time, it opened a new set of questions: In a press conference immediately following the men’s release, Echols said they would continue their search for justice: If these guys didn’t kill three children in a gruesome act of mutilation, then who did? As “Paradise Lost 3” chronicles, new DNA evidence analyzed in 2007 failed to place any of the accused at the scene of the murder. However, it did open the possibility that Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the children, could have been there. To date, Hobbs has not been officially investigated as a suspect and the prospect of a new trial fell to the wayside with the release of the West Memphis 3.
Directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky spent 18 years chronicling the story across three documentaries. During a New York Film Festival press conference, Sinofsky explained that the project had probably reached a stopping point. “Maybe it’s time to turn the cameras off and let them live their lives,” he said.
After so much build up, that conviction sounds far too premature, although it also testifies to the movies’ ambiguous intent. A fast-moving collage of news reports, talking heads and verité, “Paradise Lost” and its sequels are too phenomenally dense for anyone to determine when the story has ended, including the people responsible for telling it.
If the series serves merely to expose a broken justice system, then its stars have survived its flaws and brought the documentarians’ mission to a natural conclusion. However, the murders that led to their incarceration remain a tantalizing mystery, as does the question of whether Echols will follow through on his promise to continue his mission for justice from the outside. The final cut of “Paradise Lost 3” doesn’t resolve either issue, although it fundamentally changes the movie’s tone.
The rough cut ended on the brink of a new evidentiary trial before concluding with a brief credit noting the prisoners’ August release. The result was sudden, inexplicable uplift: Anyone familiar with the West Memphis 3 from their roughly six-hour onscreen odyssey chronicled in the three parts of “Paradise Lost” has only seen them in custody. The simple news of their freedom brings the rush of a happy ending.
The final version, however, takes a much angrier direction. The filmmakers originally ended with Echols, his fate still uncertain, concluding that he had “led an incredible life.” That’s a moving, spiritual proclamation from a man who has been married and raised a son behind bars while coming to grips with his mortality. But now Berlinger and Sinofsky have tacked on a brief epilogue in which we see the same material documented by countless media cameras: The men enter their pleas and leave the courtroom. Baldwin, who resisted the plea on principle but agreed to the plan in order to save Echols’ life, gets the final word. He lambasts the system for keeping him behind bars and forcing him to openly lie. The camera rests on a newspaper headline announcing the latest development before the credits roll.
I understand the filmmakers’ intent, but ultimately feel divided by a desire for two non-existent conclusions: First of all, since the West Memphis 3 grew up shielded from society, their period of adjustment would make a fascinating standalone tale. But even if “Paradise Lost” intended less to become an intimate portrait than a form of activism, as Echols asserts, much work lies ahead. “Paradise Lost 3” continues the fascinating trajectory launched in 1994 and does the series justice, but it fails to close the book. Then again, perhaps the impossibility of that task is the most essential part of this historic trilogy’s ongoing legacy.
criticWIRE grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? HBO has scheduled a theatrical release for the movies in the hopes of landing it some trophies during awards season. It stands a good chance of doing well commercially due to media interest in the story, but it’s too early to tell what sort of competition it will have when the time comes for nominations.
Read indieWIRE’s earlier review of “Paradise Lost 3” when it premiered unfinished at TIFF here.