Directors: Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky
Producers: Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky
Stars: Jessie Misskelley, Jr., Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin
Steve Branch, Michael Moore, Christopher Byers. In May of 1993, the bodies of these three little boys were discovered in a river bed in the “Robin Hood Hills” of West Memphis, Arkansas. They had been hog-tied, brutally beaten, mutilated. But PARADISE LOST: THE CHILD MURDERS AT ROBIN HOOD HILLS (1996) is not the story of these three boys. Instead, it is the story of three young men: the “West Memphis Three,” accused of the child murders. On June 3, Jessie Misskelley, Jr. (17), confessed to killing Branch, Moore, and Byers. Soon after, Damien Echols (18) and Jason Baldwin (16) were also brought in and charged, despite their protestations of innocence.
I suspect that many different aspects of the case of the West Memphis Three bring people to this documentary. There is no shortage of fascinations. For one—most obviously—there’s the sinister and brutal nature of the crime. We are compelled to ask: What kind of person skins and mutilates a little boy? The tragedy heightens emotions throughout the documentary … in one disturbing scene, Chris Byers’ stepfather slowly talks the spectator through what it would be like for him to shoot each of the three suspects; Jessie Misskelley’s father’s girlfriend proclaims that if Jessie was guilty, she wouldn’t send him a nickel for cigarettes in prison; and, as if all of that weren’t enough, Damien Echols’ fiancée gives birth to their first child during the trial.
Furthermore, PARADISE LOST chronicles a case that twists and turns with contradictions, red herrings, and appalling legal missteps. For one, there’s Jessie Misskelley’s confession, which was elicited by twelve hours of questioning. Misskelley was interrogated alone, despite his status as a minor, and had difficulty understanding his rights (with an IQ of 72, he was considered “borderline intellectual functioning”). The confession was transparently false—the result of a manipulative combination of intimidation, coercion, fatigue, and veiled threats from police. This is the most glaring institutional failure, but far from the only one.
“West Memphis,” says Damien Echols, “is a modern Salem.” It’s no surprise he sees it that way. West Memphis is squarely situated in the Bible Belt and, while the residents appear largely good-humored, generous, and family- and community-oriented, they are disturbingly quick to point fingers at the Memphis Three for the wrong reasons. Throughout the trial, there is wild speculation, mainly that the suspects were involved in a Satanist cult. The evidence? Not much: “witnesses” recited rumors that Misskelley, Echols, and Baldwin were seen performing ritual sacrifices in the woods, the ninnyish prosecuting attorney drags in books by Anton LaVey and Aleister Crowley that Echols checked out from the local library—oh, and, of course, the boys wear black and listen to Metallica. Makes sense, right?
If you’re looking for a crime documentary with a shocking twist à la THE IMPOSTER (2012) or DEAR ZACHARY (2008), keep on moving, because PARADISE LOST is two and a half hours of courtroom footage and selective interviews with the suspects, their families, and the victims’ families. It’s a dense, interesting watch, but far from the over-the-top drama that makes for a hip documentary today. It’s engrossing in a different way—the fascination it holds is in watching blue-collar Americans work through their pain and prejudice, underprivileged teenage boys trying to quickly learn and play the legal system, and mourners trying to hold onto their humanity. Even when the film ends, the story is far from over—there’s a reason why PARADISE LOST has two sequels.