The long, strange, horrible story of the West Memphis Three finally comes to a close in Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's final chapter in the documentary trilogy that, after 18 years, released three innocent men from prison and saved one of their lives. Not since Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line has a documentary film so directly impacted the judicial system, and even Morris's masterpiece didn't muster up the kind of relentless public outcry as the continuing saga of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jesse Miskelly, who spent nearly two decades behind bars for the brutal murders of three Cub Scouts in West Memphis, Arkansas.
The first quarter of Berlinger and Sinofsky's new film is primarily background and catch-up, helpful for filling in viewers new to the story and refreshing those who saw its HBO documentary predecessors, Paradise Lost (1996) and Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000). The filmmakers then move on to the birth and growth of the movement that followed, with thousands of online supporters and outspoken celebrities joining in the fight to overturn the convictions of the three young men--a fight thwarted at every turn by the state of Arkansas, particularly Judge David Burnett, who not only presided over the original trial, but every single motion and appeal. The primary focus of Paradise Lost 3 is the events of the past four years, in which new evidence came to light that not only seemed to prove the WM3's innocence, but pointed the finger to another feasible suspect.
Intermingling footage from the first two films (shot between 1993 and 2000) with new material, Berlinger and Sinofsky (and editor Alyse Ardell Spiegel) move nimbly through the years--they know this material inside out, having lived with it for nearly two decades. The frequency and repetition of the on-screen text may irritate some, but it's necessary; the story is such a mass of names, relationships, and dates, popping across such a wide-ranging chronology, that the supers help even plugged-in audiences keep everything and everyone straight.
The juxtaposition of old and new footage (even within specific scenes, like an archival clip of Jesse calling his dad that suddenly jumps to the present) is decidedly poignant. We are, at first, somewhat shocked by the transposition of the little Jesse Misskelly of the '90s with the hardened, swollen, and tattooed man we see behind the jailhouse glass now. In following the story for so long, we've been given the opportunity to observe the adults they've become--in that way, these films are almost like a dark version of the Apted Up documentaries. We're particularly struck by Echols, the member of the trio consistently toughest to get a read on; he has developed into a thoughtful and intelligent young man who can say, without irony or bitterness, "in a lot of ways, I have a truly incredible life."
Perhaps the most peculiar and problematic figure of the first two films was John Mark Byers, stepfather of one of the victims, who often seemed to be reading from a prepared script in his fire-and-brimstone damnations of the trio. Convincing theories were floated, mostly in the second film, that he might have been the true culprit. When the DNA evidence is finally released, basically clearing the West Memphis Three (and, not incidentally, Mr. Byers), he does an astonishing about-face and comes to not only believe in their innocence, but to crusade loudly for their release. (Shockingly enough, it is his voice that we find ourselves agreeing with during the film's epilogue.) His is a character arc that might be tough to swallow in a fiction film, but it infuses this one with genuine, unexpected pathos.
Video & Audio:
Berlinger and Sinofsky went back to their original footage from the early 1990s when assembling Paradise Lost 3, and you can tell. The images are scratchy, dirty, and beat-up, but it actually has an interesting effect on the film aesthetically; it emphasizes the age of that footage, and thus how long this case has dragged on. It's not really a major concern, since we're not going to a movie like this to be dazzled by the visual quality; for what it's worth, the new footage for this film is clean and crisp, if unspectacular.
The English Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is understandably center-heavy, but surround channels are employed for music cues and environmental effects, resulting in an even and solid track.
No subtitles are available.
Docurama offers up a fine assortment of bonus features for this one. First up is a deleted scene from the original Paradise Lost, "Blood on the Necklace" (11:52), which details a sidebar during the original trial. It ultimately doesn't lead anywhere, so you can see why it was cut, but it's an interesting bit of extra footage (and gives us a fascinating glimpse of the competing lawyers behind closed doors). The rest of the deleted scenes come from Paradise Lost 3: "Lost Evidence" (3:53) concerns an important bit of lost evidence from the original trial, and how the West Memphis police has (hopefully) improved in its evidence tracking; "The Prosecution's Case" (7:15) expands on the faulty claims of confession and other testimony during the original trial; and "A Recantation" (3:32) concerns the testimony of Victoria Hutcheson, who testified in 1994 that she attended a cult meeting with Echols and Misskelley.
The "Press Day Panel Discussion" (7:22) is a slick featurette with clips from a press availability by the West Memphis Three and the two filmmakers in October 2011, though most of the sound bites come from the WM3. The filmmakers get their chance to talk in the "Interview with Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky" featurette (4:55), which intersperses clips with interview snippets. Text-only Filmmaker Bios close out the bonus features.
The legal and investigative angles are expectedly dense and startling, from bombshell information about the misconduct of the original trial's jury foreman to riveting footage from the deposition of Terry Hobbs, the new object of suspicion in the case. But as with the previous films, it is the human angle that sears itself into our memory--that of the grieving parents of the three murdered boys, and the families and friends of the three young men who lost years of their own lives due to what amounted to a witch hunt. There are real emotional moments here, like Byers reading the letter Echols sent him after his conversion, or the embrace between Echols and Baldwin at their closing news conference. Those scenes are why this story became the sensation it did: because Berlinger and Sinofsky never treated their subjects like a cause or an abstract. They were real people, all of them, the victims and the accused, and they were all suffering. In Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, we are given some comfort by the knowledge that some of that suffering is over, while the tasteful dedication after the fade to black reminds us that some of it will never end.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.