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Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (A PopEntertainment com Movie Review)

Updated: May 15, 2023


Featuring Damien Wayne Echols, Jason Baldwin, Jessie Miskelly, John Mark Byers, Terry Hobbs, Gary Gitchell, Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky, Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp and Natalie Maines.

Directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky.

Distributed by HBO Documentary Films. 121 minutes. Not Rated.

If not for the Paradise Lost series of documentaries, no one outside of a tiny pocket of Arkansas would have ever heard of the West Memphis 3. More to the point, if not for these movies, two of them would still be in jail and the third quite likely would have been executed by now.

The West Memphis 3 are Damien Wayne Echols, Jason Baldwin, Jessie Miskelly – three local teen misfits that became the focus of an investigation in the early 1990s of the brutal murders of three young boys. It was a pretty scandalous story, full of Satan-worship, heavy metal music, drugs and torture. One of the boys – who was borderline autistic – even had confessed to the crime after hours of brutal questioning.

Documentary filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky went to cover the trial in 1994 fully convinced that the right culprits had been caught. This was despite the fact that the one confessor had recanted his testimony, claiming that he had endured mental abuse by the police and finally just said what they wanted him to say. However, the more the filmmakers spoke with the principals in the case, the more they investigated, the less things added up.

The original Paradise Lost was shown on 1996 on HBO and by that time, the documentarians were fully convinced that the wrong men (well, boys) had gone to jail. Due to the documentary, the trial became international news and many concerned citizens – including such celebrities as Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder and Dixie Chick Natalie Maines. They followed up on the story in 2000 with Paradise Lost 2, reminding the world that the boys were still in prison (one was on death row) and offering an alternate theory for the crime (a theory which they recant here.)

However, justice can move slowly, so twelve years later the filmmakers returned yet again to witness the final maneuverings which led to the West Memphis 3 finally finding some justice – though it was attached to a loophole which none of the prisoners were exactly happy with. However, if they were willing to plead guilty – all the while maintaining their innocence – they would be allowed to go free on time served. The law can be a complicated and fickle beast.

The Paradise Lost series are not the first documentaries which led to (apparently) innocent people being released from jail. For example, Erroll Morris’ The Thin Blue Line famously captured the real killer’s confession in an interview. Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans led to the release of one of the suspects jailed in the case when all but one of the witnesses recanted their testimony on film. (The other imprisoned person died in jail, and he was obviously guilty of at least some crimes, though not necessarily the ones he was indicted of.)

The Paradise Lost films are not responsible for any such investigative revelations – other than the fact that they are following while other people make them. Paradise Lost 3 makes a pretty compelling argument that possibly the real murderer had been hiding in plain sight (and doing interviews with the documentaries) all along. (The film also ends on a sinking feeling when the local law enforcement seems unwilling to explore the development brought up.) However, the filmmakers did not come up with this scenario themselves. Paradise Lost is taking a more passive technique to freeing the convicts. It is simply allowing their arguments to be aired.

Which is fine. It is not the documentary-makers’ job to disprove the state’s case (the earlier examples sited went above and beyond), it is just their job to tell the story.

And at that, the Paradise Lost films may be the greatest sustained usages of the documentary format since Michael Apted’s Up movies. (Which still continue, the latest installment 56 Up is due in 2012.)

You do not have to have seen the other two films to appreciate Paradise Lost 3 (in fact, I haven’t). Like the Up movies, Paradise Lost 3 shuffles past and current footage with clear-eyed focus which makes the story as easy as possible to follow.

Occasionally Paradise Lost 3 gets a little too self-congratulatory. In onscreen interviews, people often credit the films for keeping the story in the public eye. In one interview snipped, death row inmate Damien Echols states flat out that the filmmakers are the only reason that the state of Arkansas did not murder him. It is a heartfelt moment of thanks and it is greatly deserved. It is fine for the filmmakers to be proud of what they accomplished, however it removes the traditional documentarian’s detachment. The story is supposed to be about the West Memphis 3, not the films.

That said, perhaps the filmmakers do deserve to do a little crowing. They made a huge difference in the lives of several people and they were able to play a huge role in overturning a miscarriage of justice. And they did it with quite a fine film.

(Note: Despite the fact that this is listed in the "Available at Your Video Store" section, at the time of this posting the movie is only available as a documentary running on HBO. It is almost inevitable that it will be released on Blu-Ray and DVD, but there is no official release date set.)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2012 All rights reserved. Posted: January 10, 2012.


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