Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory debuts tonight on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern.
The recent good fortune for the accused child-murderers known as The West Memphis 3—freed from prison last August after 17 years—proved to be ill fortune for Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, which was completed before Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin were freed. Berlinger and Sinofsky have hurriedly prepped an epilogue, which has been tacked onto the version of the documentary debuting on HBO tonight. But as I suspected when I saw Paradise Lost 3 at the Toronto International Film Festival back in September, the epilogue isn’t wholly satisfactory. Really, there was no way it could’ve been, given the story that Purgatory tells.
Don’t get me wrong. Paradise Lost 3 is a gripping film—much moreso than Paradise Lost 2: Revelation, which got mired in self-congratulatory footage of the “Free The WM3” movement, and in some morally dicey guilt-shifting. But ever since the first film, Berlinger and Sinofsky have moved more to advocacy mode when it comes to this case, which makes Purgatory more of a direct call for justice, combined with an expression of frustration with the slow-drip appeals process. Given the new developments, this approach feels incongruous with the outcome. The final version of the movie even refers to upcoming hearings in “December 2011” and to what those hearings will mean to the The WM3’s possibility of getting release, which are strange details to preserve, given how they were rendered irrelevant by what happened in August.
Purgatory is driven largely by new information about the DNA evidence that has emerged since Revelations, and by yet another attempt to point to another possible suspect—an attempt that would have more sting were it not for the filmmakers’ previous efforts in that regard. (Though it’s worth noting that John Mark Byers, the villain of Revelations, has since become a staunch backer of the Free The WM3 movement.) The new version is largely unchanged from what I saw in Toronto. Berlinger and Sinofsky dig deeply into the DNA, and suggest that it points to one of the other fathers of the victims as the killer. They bring up the possibility of jury misconduct, while also thoroughly discrediting the prosecution’s “expert” on the occult. Then comes the twist ending: out of the blue, Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin are all allowed by the state to enter an “Alford plea,” stating that they are innocent but that they are pleading guilty in exchange for their release. There’s a whole doc’s worth of story buried in this epilogue, from what it says about the state of Arkansas (accused here of coming up with this convoluted plea as way of serving justice while covering its ass) to what it means to these men, who are re-entering society after losing half their lives to the judicial system. It’s not Berlinger and Sinofsky’s fault that the movie they’d planned to make got away from them. Still… it’s awkward.
Again though, anyone who’s been following the WM3 story since the first Paradise Lost will want to see Purgatory. It’s thoroughly absorbing, even if the reasons for watching these movies has changed over the years. The first documentary—a classic of the medium, in my opinion—was about the vagaries of truth and justice, and about the fear and mania that gripped a smallish southern community, putting stones in the hands of people who lived in their own glass houses. The films since have been about catching up with the principals and seeing how they’ve changed, and how the public’s opinion of the case has shifted since Paradise Lost. It says something about Berlinger and Sinofsky’s ability to forge relationships that they’ve continued to get interviews with people whom their previous films have criticized.
What’s most fascinating about Purgatory though is how effectively Berlinger and Sinofsky have re-purposed outtakes from the first Paradise Lost. (The same was true of Revelations, actually.) The new film goes over the facts of the case yet again—how three 8-year-old boys were bound, mutilated, and murdered, and how Damien, Jessie, and Jason were accused of performing a Satanic ritual—but it doesn’t reuse much from the earlier docs. Instead we see and hear evidence we’ve never seen and heard before, and not all of it was newly shot. In fact, at one point the lead investigator on the case complains that HBO has never shown the public all the relevant evidence; and even here, in the background of some courtroom shots, we can see pieces of exhibits that may relate to some of that. Like the law itself, documentary films only weigh some of the facts.
This is not to say that The West Memphis 3 are actually guilty; I personally believe they were probably railroaded. But it’s amazing that this case is so rich with detail that Berlinger and Sinofsky have gotten three lengthy films out of it, and still haven’t told the whole story.
- I moved to Arkansas a couple of years after I saw the first Paradise Lost, and hadn’t re-watched the film or Revelations until last summer, when I revisited them to prepare for seeing Purgatory in Toronto. It’s interesting to see these movies again from the perspective of an Arkansan (if I can call myself that after a decade of living here). For the most part, I feel like Berlinger and Sinofsky get the contradictions of Arkansas right. It’s a progressive state in some ways, populated by clever, cultured people; but also deeply conservative and reactionary in other ways, populated by huffy hicks. (I suppose that’s true of every state, southern and northern.) What’s most startling to me though is how many of the locations in the Paradise Lost movies I’ve actually been to without realizing it. Like, I’ve stopped at that truck stop near the crime scene once or twice. Eerie.
- Whatever beef I may have with this documentary, I would watch the hell out of a Paradise Lost 4, about the post-prison life of these guys. In the meantime, when I go to Sundance next week I’ll be checking out West Of Memphis, a Peter Jackson-produced documentary about the case. I’ll see if another set of filmmakers do any better with the story than Berlinger and Sinofsky have so far. (Interestingly, Berlinger will be at the fest to with his new documentary about Paul Simon, Under African Skies. Will Berlinger give his blessing to West Of Memphis while he’s there? Stay tuned.)