By all rights, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (HBO, 9 p.m. Eastern) should feel more triumphant than it does. It is, after all, about the release of the West Memphis Three, men who were imprisoned — wrongly, it now seems — for murdering and mutilating three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, nearly two decades ago. When convicted killers Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr. were sentenced back in 1993, they were mere boys themselves, high school kids with pimply skin and uncertain voices.
Thanks in large part to the efforts of Free the West Memphis Three, a legal defense fund, the once seemingly impregnable case against them fell apart, exposed as circumstantial and shoddy and tainted by ineptitude and bureaucratic self-protection. When Berlinger and Sinofsky visited West Memphis in 1996’s Paradise Lost, it was the story of a court case, pure and simple, and the filmmakers viewed it with an ominous and slightly clinical detachment. By the time they made their follow-up, 2000’s Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, the trio were already starting to seem like victims of a witch hunt. When they’re finally let go at the end of Paradise Lost 3 — the result of a bizarre plea-bargain arrangement that I’ll get into shortly — there is a sense of relief and a surge of sentiment, but it’s fleeting, and in the end it’s eclipsed by a sense of emotional, physical, and spiritual exhaustion. Berlinger and Sinofsky titled this movie before the trio found out they were finally going free, but the word “Purgatory” still fits, because it encapsulates their predicament over the last eighteen years. The trio was condemned not just to rot in prison, but to wait for a resolution, an exoneration, that most people figured would never come.
Like a lot of people, I’ve been following this series, and this case, for nearly twenty years, watching life unfold around me in all its splendor, terror, and tedium, seeing the seasons change, watching my kids grow up. Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin were denied all of that except for the aging. When they got out of prison last fall, they had to teach themselves how to eat with utensils again. Time is as much the subject of this documentary as legal machinations. Part of what makes it so haunting is the spectacle of changing faces and bodies — and a changing medium, represented by battered and scratchy early film footage gradually giving way to videotape, then digital video. The judges, lawyers, and activists age onscreen along with the West Memphis Three, thickening and going grey, but we’re constantly aware that whatever other indignities they suffered, at least they were allowed privileges denied to these imprisoned … oops, I almost typed “boys” because I was looking at a black-and-white photo of Echols with his long, stringy, nineties goth-teen hair and his baby face; men, I meant to say.
When I first saw Paradise Lost 3 at an HBO screening last fall — with the trio in attendance — the news of their release was so fresh that the filmmakers had to rush to affix a coda to a movie that had been made with the presumption that they’d be stuck in prison forever, that nothing was ever going to change. Yet the film’s overall effect was still infuriating, because it showed three men being scapegoated and imprisoned by a corrupt criminal justice system, one that was, and remains, less interested in determining guilt or innocence than in constructing the illusion of justice, and with protecting lawyers, judges, and politicians against taking responsibility for their actions. You can’t really cheer anybody in circumstances like these. You can only marvel at the extent of human duplicity and self-interest.
You needn’t have seen Paradise Lost parts one and two to be able to appreciate this documentary. Berlinger and Sinofsky have woven so much backstory into their narrative here that the third film suffices as a distilled summary of the whole weird, sad saga. You hear about how Christopher Byers, Michael Moore, and Stevie Branch’s bodies were found hacked up in a ditch in West Memphis, and how Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley were deemed likely suspects at least in part because Echols, the leader of the group, was a black-clad and emotionally disturbed metal-head weirdo, and how the entire state seemed to succumb to hysteria over Satanism during the run-up to the first trial, and how the burgeoning movement to free the West Memphis Three was dampened by the justice system’s built-in self-protective mechanism, which seems built around maintaining the fiction that the state can never be wrong. It’s all still sickeningly Kafkaesque. Berlinger and Sinofsky make a running (very dark) joke out of a narrative refrain: Over the decades, motions to review old evidence, introduce new evidence, or otherwise challenge the state’s case were repeatedly denied and overruled by the very judge who sent the trio to the slammer in the first place. Richard Nixon had less ability to cover his own ass.
It was only after a team of experts hired by Free the West Memphis Three demolished the case against the trio that the state got nervous and allowed them to enter what’s known as an Alford Plea, which allows convicts to go free while proclaiming their innocence, while also admitting that sufficient evidence exists for the state to prove their guilt; in essence, it allows the state to continue to insist that they didn’t make any mistakes, that they got the right guys. (The trio was sentenced to time served and is theoretically still guilty.) Paradise Lost 3 never loses sight of the sickening black humor of it all — how Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley became, in effect, mere extras in a shadowplay about the omnipotence of the state. In the shadow of such sickness, all the personal dramas can’t help but pale, but there are still surprising and powerful moments, not the least of which is the scene in which John Mark Byers, the murdered Chris Byers’ adoptive father and a suspect himself, reads a letter from Echols forgiving him for his public statements proclaiming the trio’s guilt and wishing for their deaths.
There’s a secondary narrative in this trilogy, one that will admittedly be of interest mainly to journalists, historians, and film students: Berlinger and Sinofsky’s gradual evolution from “objective”or at least detached observers to doubting and trouble-making skeptics to openly partisan activists advancing a particular interpretation of events. If you watch the three movies in a row you can see it happening onscreen, this shift. The first movie, like the duo’s debut Brother’s Keeper, is a work in the Maysles Brothers/D.A. Pennebaker school, a fly-on-the-wall movie; its only auteur flourishes are the Metallica score and the swooping helicopter shots that suggest the point-of-view of winged demons swooping low in search of fresh souls to steal. The second film is the least perfect, most wrenching, and in some ways the most fascinating entry in the trilogy, because it shows the West Memphis Three, the murder victims’ families, the state, and the filmmakers all buckling beneath the weight of crippling doubt and anger that they can’t really direct anywhere. The second movie is about that mix of paralysis and rage that afflicts people who aren’t satisfied with the outcome of a story; it’s about feeling in your gut that things aren’t right but lacking the tools or the power to alter the narrative, and the agony that comes with realizing your own powerlessness. The third movie was made by directors who had cast off received wisdom about what proper documentary filmmaking is supposed to be. They’ve probably wrestled with doubt over this since 1993, and maybe they still do, but I suspect those feelings subside when they watch Damien Echols eating pie with a fork for the first time in eighteen years.