Somehow, HBO's Paradise Lost series of documentaries from the directing team of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky eluded my eyes over the years. As a media junkie, it was impossible to escape the strong critical notices received by 1996's Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills and its follow-up four years later, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations. Add in the fact that one of my favourite bands, Metallica, received a lot of attention for the then-extremely rare granting of their music to be used in the films, plus the fact that Berlinger and Sinofsky directed both the excellent Brother's Keeper and the brilliant Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster docs and, well, I have no good explanation for missing the boat. I took care of that in the course of one evening a little while ago, watching the first, second, and latest film, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, in rapid succession. I probably wouldn't recommend subjecting yourself to six hours and 40 minutes of emotionally raw cinema in one sitting, but each film was so gripping that it was nearly impossible not to keep watching.
For the uninitiated, the films look at the cases of the "West Memphis Three", three young men (made up of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley) who were convicted in 1994 for the murders of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas the previous year. Echols was put on death row, while Baldwin and Misskelley received life sentences, even though, as the films show, the case was poorly handled by authorities and the circumstantial evidence against the trio was flawed. The first documentary stirred up international media attention and high profile celebrities, including Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, the Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines, and Johnny Depp got involved in the movement to have the trio exonerated. Director Peter Jackson also committed himself to the cause, helping to bankroll investigative efforts to aid in freeing the men, as well as making his own documentary on the subject with the upcoming West Of Memphis. And yet another filmmaker has found the West Memphis Three's story ripe for the cinematic treatment (a dramatic retelling in this case) - Atom Egoyan's Devil's Knot, starring Reese Witherspoon, Colin Firth, Amy Adams, and The Killing's Mireille Enos will begin shooting next month.
Berlinger and Sinofsky do a good job in making Paradise Lost 3 function ably as a standalone piece of work, recapping the salient details presented in the first two docs, while also adding some previously unused footage from those projects (the deeply disturbing crime scene footage, showing close-up shots of the naked bodies of the victims, is used once again here). It gives new viewers a fine enough understanding of the case, but I still highly recommend watching those first two films. The first Paradise Lost, in particular, is heralded as one of the best documentaries ever made for a reason. Updated interviews with the incarcerated trio effectively convey both the emotional and physical toll of prison life, along with their obvious ongoing frustration at the lack of justice. One nice side story, briefly touched upon in the series' second documentary, focusses on the relationship between Echols and Lorri Davis, a woman who was so affected by the first film that she started writing him. After establishing a real connection with Echols, Davis ended up leaving her lucrative job as an architect in Brooklyn to move to Arkansas and be closer to him, while also contributing to his freedom movement (the pair married in 1999). Also featured prominently is the fascinating John Mark Byers, a hulking figure who one suspects isn't playing with a full deck. His strange behaviour and unpredictability, on full display in all three films now, is a documentary filmmaker's wet dream. The adoptive father of one of the victims, Byers emerged at the end of the second Paradise Lost as a highly suspicious figure. In this film, he's dramatically changed his previous tune on who he thinks committed the murders.
Paradise Lost 3's most important information reveals new DNA evidence, from testing not available at the time of the trio's convictions, that further strengthens their assertions of innocence. Also notable is new information from a medical examiner that dismisses the originally held belief that the victims were mutilated by the killer(s) (he provides extremely strong evidence that wild animals were responsible for post-mortem trauma inflicted on the bodies). All of the factors pointing to the innocence of the Three led to the dramatic announcement last August 19th that Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley were finally going to be released after 18 years in jail. Unfortunately, the state of Arkansas took the cowardly way out by making their release conditional on the men invoking the rarely used "Alford plea", whereby they must sign a confession of guilt, even while asserting their innocence to the crime (basically, it takes the state off the hook for any wrongful imprisonment lawsuits). That announcement came just three weeks before the world premiere of Paradise Lost 3 at the Toronto International Film Festival, which didn't allow enough time for changes to the film for TIFF screenings. An extra dozen minutes covering the turn of events and reaction to it were added for subsequent screenings at other festivals and the documentary's television premiere.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a more engrossing or better constructed true-life crime documentary than what the Paradise Lost series of films delivers. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory isn't quite as good as part one, but ranks slightly better than part two. Unquestionably, Berlinger's and Sinofsky's efforts are one of the main reasons these three men are now free, which points to the power of art and the influence it can occasionally wield. Considering the late-in-the-game timing of the trio's release and the numerous angles still open to exploration for the filmmakers, I'd fully expect and welcome a fourth entry in the series sometime in the future.