All of our 2011 New York Film Festival coverage is here.
By any yardstick, “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” should be considered a triumph, its obvious success first and foremost in how the series as a whole facilitated the release of the West Memphis Three, the trio of teenage friends whose black clothing and preference for heavy metal was all the evidence needed for their conviction for the gruesome murders of three second graders in Arkansas in 1993. If the film’s opening moments seem self-congratulatory, that recognition of directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s role in the case is earned, but what’s bound to be overlooked is how “Purgatory” is also a triumph of actual filmmaking, condensing a story that took place over 20 years into a film that satisfies those who have watched its previous two installments without being redundant while working completely as a standalone film.
“Purgatory” almost feels like a perverse version of Michael Apted’s “7 Up” series, flipping back and forth between the original 1996 film, the 2000 film “Revelations” and the present day, following its nose through different details of the case as the case and the outside world evolves while its subjects wither in solitary confinement. To their credit, Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jesse Misskelley all appear to be holding up better than should be expected, their introductions peppered throughout the film with the most dramatic transformation presented first with Misskelley, the boy whose coerced confession was the prosecution’s smoking gun, who has grown from a lanky teen with tousled hair to a bald, burly man with an auspicious tattoo of a clock without hands on the crown of his head.
By comparison, Baldwin and Echols have aged a bit more gracefully, the latter married to Lorri Davis, one of the Three’s most fervent supporters who was inspired to move from Brooklyn based on the original film. Like so many since then, she has seen her unwavering support rewarded with new evidence to clear her husband’s name. While DNA evidence is the most definitive proof that the wrong people are in prison, Berlinger and Sinfosky once again hone in on the human error that’s the most dramatically compelling. The film is required to circle back to Judge David Burnett, who turned down every appeal in the case, remains stubborn and goes the entire three films without giving an on-camera interview about the case, though his election to the State Senate becomes a crucial moment in breaking the logjam.
However, the unlikely source of “Purgatory”’s new information is from the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines, who played a key role not because she brought attention to the case through her celebrity, but because her legal team took full advantage of a defamation suit brought against her by Terry Hobbs, one of the parents of the dead boys, after she pointed out that his DNA at the crime scene suggested he was far more likely to be guilty than the West Memphis Three. Instead of attacking Maines’ credibility, Hobbs, who emerges as a prime suspect in this third chapter, finds himself on the defensive as it’s the first time he’s ever been deposed under oath regarding the case.
As justified as it may possibly be, Berlinger and Sinofsky’s own proclivity to pile on the prospect of Hobbs being the true killer may be the weakest point of “Paradise Lost 3” since the film reminds that we’ve been down this road before with John Mark Byers, the stepfather of one of the boys who was once the de facto leader of the West Memphis Three’s lynch mob before being suspected of the crime himself in “Paradise Lost 2.” Once again featured prominently in “Purgatory,” Byers’ transformation into one of the trio’s most passionate defenders is an intriguing metaphor for the entire series, not only remarkable in how the pendulum has swung, but also troubling since it redirects anger in a way it still could be misplaced.
Of course by now, nearly anyone who will see “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” knows how it all ends, though some surprise may still remain for the audience since the three men aren’t fully exonerated of the murder charges, forced to submit something called an Alford plea that the filmmakers are able to put in the proper context. It’s slightly frustrating to know that Berlinger and Sinofsky had to rush to add new footage after the film debuted at the Toronto Film Festival and in time for the New York Film Festival and Oscar consideration since the ending feels organic to what comes before it and resounding in its glory, but incomplete when Baldwin tells Nichols at their post-court appearance press conference that he didn’t want to agree to the plea deal. (He does because Nichols faces the threat of execution on death row, but never wanted to admit guilt.) Surely there were some riveting moments in those negotiations that aren’t captured in “Paradise Lost 3” because of time.
Yet in some ways, that omission further illuminates the mystery of the “Paradise Lost” series, which couldn’t have a truly happy ending no matter how it turned out. And despite the fact the West Memphis Three deserved better at nearly every turn of their two-decades-long struggle, the one thing they couldn’t have asked for was a better advocate for their cause than the films of Berlinger and Sinofsky.
"Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory" plays once more at the New York Film Festival on October 11th at Walter Reade Theater. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinfosky will also appear to discuss the film with Eugene Hernandez at the Francesca Beale Theater on October 13th. The film will air on HBO in January, but it will also have an Oscar consideration run beginning November 4th in Los Angeles at the Fallbrook 7.