Back in 1995, documentary filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky flew down to West Memphis, Arkansas, to cover a murder trial that they thought would represent the callousness of today’s youth and the total deterioration of American values. Three teenagers had apparently decided to kill and decapitate three eight-year old boys on a whim. What they found, however, was something entirely different: a small town witch hunt, an incompetent justice system and mass hysteria. Despite a lack of complete lack of physical evidence, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Miskelly were convicted and thrown behind bars before they could scarcely comprehend what had happened to them.
The resulting documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills was a landmark film, not just because it told a story that was both gripping and shocking, but also because it started a movement. That movement, in part, led to Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, a sequel that focused on the battle to free the West Memphis Three (as they have since been labeled) and also raised suspicions about the possible involvement of the father of one of the murdered boys, John Mark Byers. Alas, a decade after the release of that film, they were all still serving life sentences, one of them on death row. Which brings us to Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory.
The third film in the series focuses on a plethora of new evidence that has been unearthed to potentially prove their innocence, and it also checks in with these people ten years later. In some ways, a lot has changed. Everyone seems to have a lot less hair for one thing, but it also seems that people have generally mellowed out. Damien and John Mark Byers have made amends, and the West Memphis Three have learned to accept their situation and make the best of it. Does time really heal all wounds?
The movie once again opens with ominous Metallica guitar riffs and swooping aerial shots of West Memphis, and then proceeds to attempt to summarize events from the previous two films. Although you could probably do an endless series of films about these characters and it would never get old, there is an incredible amount of recapping that eventually becomes necessary in order to keep new viewers up to speed. At first it feels that we will never get to any new material, but it slowly rekindles the feeling of outrage as we see all of the ridiculous decisions that were made along the way.
The majority of the film is concerned with presenting the evidence that has been gathered by new experts who were hired by the WM3 Legal Defense Fund. They have obtained new DNA evidence that wasn’t available with the technology they had at the time of the trial that does not link any of the West Memphis Three to the crime scene. Lorri Davis, a long time campaigner and now Damien’s wife, is among those who were instrumental in pushing for the evidence to be presented in court. Despite a statute allowing for post-conviction DNA testing, however, the request is initially denied due to a questionable interpretation of the law.
The DNA testing does reveal a new potential suspect, and even though the courts are not interested in hearing about it, the film indulges this possibility for a while. Compared with the previous film, however, the evidence is not as strong and the suspect is not nearly as riveting on screen as the fire and brimstone of John Mark Byers.
The big problem with reviewing this movie, of course, is that the cut shown at TIFF was essentially unfinished. As most people know by now, the West Memphis Three were finally released last month with ten-year suspended sentences. The details of the deal they made and their re-introduction to the real world after 18 years in prison is not covered by the film. I guess this is what happens when your movie is pushing for change — it can potentially rewrite the very story it is documenting, which is obviously a good thing, but means the filmmakers are one step behind.
Although Paradise Lost 3 is perhaps the tightest and most well-made of the three films thus far, it is a little less compelling content-wise, particularly if you’ve seen the first two films. The new ending will make it stronger and more satisfying to be sure, but it remains to be seen how much material they might leave for a possible fourth film. As it stands, Paradise Lost 3 serves as a solid conclusion to what is an amazing non-fiction trilogy. However, if a fourth film were to become a reality, it could end up being the non-essential middle chapter of an otherwise epic story. Only time will tell. — Sean