The following is a reprint of our review from the 2011 New York Film Festival. "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory" debuted on HBO, Thursday, January 12, and airs again next on Sunday, January 15. More airdates can be found here.
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; 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 of 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 the 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, with 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 the parents of the murdered boys to the 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 recounts 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. Even more significant was another revelation, 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 ta seriously morally questionable aspect 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 outright accuse, then significantly encourage you to point the finger of guilt 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 bring to the 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 even when 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 of 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 effect positive change. [B+]