The forthcoming release of Amy J. Berg’s West of Memphis, a documentary about the trial(s) of the questionably convicted West Memphis Three, seems more than a bit curious. Maybe it’s because over the course of nearly two decades, filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky have already assembled the authoritative document on the subject: the Paradise Lost trilogy.
Released on HBO in 1996, 2000, and 2011, the trilogy probes the arrests and conviction of three West Memphis, Arkansas teenagers—Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr.—charged with murdering three young boys. In large part because of the first Paradise Lost film, the case became something of media sensation, compelling viewers sympathetic to the portrayal of three pilloried teenage outcasts (one a pasty faux-Satanist, one a pipsqueak metal-head, one mentally challenged) to form support communities, driven by the film’s sense that something fishy, if not brazenly unlawful, hung over the proceedings. Paradise Lost 2: Revelations captured that grassroots community as they rallied to reignite public interest in the case, while the latest film saw their efforts—and those of indefatigable defense attorneys—rewarded with the freeing of the West Memphis Three through an odd legal loophole that allowed them to plead guilty to the crimes while simultaneously maintaining their innocence.
Taken altogether, Paradise Lost is a definitive piece of Heisenbergian cinema. The real-world outcomes aren’t just actively affected (as in something like Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line), but also reinterpreted by the films themselves. All the while, Berlinger and Sinofsky somehow maintaining a rigorous documentarian distance, never really apparent at the center of their films even as the films themselves become gradually more central to the case, and resulting cultural cri de couer, they’re documenting. To pare it down a bit, the three Paradise Lost docs are the nexus through which the entire cultural phenomenon that was “the West Memphis Three” flowed. And more than merely being rigorously researched, culturally imminent, fascinating as a case study in the operations of documentary filmmaking and, yes, even important, the trilogy amounts to an ambitious, tormenting, acutely human story, a sweeping Southern-gothic epic. For Berg—and her producers, Peter Jackson and Echols himself—to shear it down to a more manageable “official” narrative seems altogether needless, something like taking Steve James’s Hoop Dreams and re-editing it into a piece of rags-to-riches sports-flick feel-goodery.
Likes James’s own meticulous and completely arresting documentary about the forces surreptitiously (and less so) guiding the pick-and-roll maneuverings of the American meritocracy, the Paradise Lost films approach their subjects with an unblinking anthropological regard. Berlinger and Sinofsky may have been piqued, like so many after who latched on to the case, by the persuasive notion of Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley Jr. as subcultural martyrs. But the ragged, intensely immerse approach they employed transcends the mere peddling of misfit sympathy.
Many of the characters of the otherwise sleepy Mississippi River town seem to energetically act out for the cameras, be it the reporter pressing a bereaved mother about her suicidal thoughts, or a stepdad (John Mark Byers, the kind of exceptionally larger-than-life figure that no fiction film could convincingly conjure, let alone contain) angrily blasting away pumpkins he names after the presumed child killers, his frothing blue-collar bombast and fantasies of vengeance steeped in the rhetoric of Old Testament retribution. Like many of the people in the film, Byers seems provoked by the mere idea of being on camera, his outrage and mourning rendered especially performative. His development from principal villain, tacitly developed in the first two movies as a chief suspect in the murders, to penitent antihero is one of the more masterful of the trilogy’s many stranger-than-fiction turns.
If Byers emerges as the films’ most memorable subject, it’s as much a function of his undeniably outsized personality as the way he seems to embody so many of the themes coursing through the films. Like the case itself, peeling back at Byers’s layers reveals only more absurdities and ghastly secrets, secret doors hidden in closets, all rattling with skeletons. In depicting the fibers of Bible-belting religious zeal, unprincipled careerism, poverty, prejudice, social alienation, miscarried justice, and out-and-out stupidity (an “expert” in Satanism and paganism, with a degree from a non-accredited mail-order university, speaks to various bafflements of the initial trial) that were knotted up in the West Memphis Three trial, the Paradise Lost films stand as one of the most mesmerizing documents of the American experience.
The video quality ranges across the three discs, which is to be expected given their respective release dates and the corresponding advances in video, then digital, filmmaking. As an artifact of its time, the home-video grubbiness of the first film actually benefits the material, with even the cleaned-up transfer feeling like a bootleg tape of a mid-'90s HBO broadcast. It certainly seems more appropriate than the scrubbed "lost footage," appearing in Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory and the bundled bonus disc, which creates an interesting tension by creating the sense that this cutting-room-floor footage is being brought into the present, instead of belonging to the past. The 2.0 Dolby mix is totally serviceable, even if it doesn't quite bring out the opening strains of Metallica's "Sanitarium" that the filmmakers employ as the trilogy's recurring leitmotif.
Given the abundance of material included in the three films, extras seem almost, well, extraneous. But considering the amount of film shot between the three documentaries, there are some new items culled from the "lost" footage. The most compelling piece packaged with the bonus disc is a lengthy interview with Jason Baldwin, conducted the same day of his release from an almost two-decade prison stint. Fiddling with what appears to be a hacky-sack, eyes constantly adjusting to the outdoor light, Baldwin speaks with candor about the trial, his imprisonment, and his newfound freedom. For more hardcore WM3 devotees, the box set also comes packaged with a 20-page booklet, largely comprised of Berlinger and Sinofsky's period photographs.
A somewhat unsung masterpiece of contemporary American cinema, the Paradise Lost trilogy proves as compelling in its warts-and-all portraiture of backwater America as its more subtle explorations of the limits and capabilities (formal, anthropological, social) of the documentary form.