Destined to rank as one of the major achievements in American documentary, the “Paradise Lost” project comes to a presumed end with “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory.” Or perhaps that should be “2 1/2”: With the release from prison last month of their subjects, the West Memphis 3, helmers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky have had to fashion a new ending to their masterwork of explanatory journalism, advocacy and perseverance. Toronto Film Festival audiences, therefore, are seeing the film not only first, but last: When it plays the New York Film Festival Oct. 10 and airs on HBO in January, its ending will have changed.
It won’t be a major alteration. At the moment, “Purgatory” ends with the decree by the Arkansas Supreme Court that new DNA and other forensic evidence presented in 2007 justified a new hearing for defendants Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, originally convicted in 1994 for the murders of three young boys in suburban Arkansas. They subsequently cut a deal with prosecutors and were released.
Whether this development will change the viewing experience is debatable, since “Purgatory” will end on an up note in any event. What won’t change is what the film, in its current state, does so well: synopsizing all that’s come before, juggling dozens of dates, events and people, without ever losing the narrative flow. The film incorporates the startling new information — including a medical examiner’s conclusion that wild animals, not human killers, committed the “mutilations” of the victim’s corpses — and arrives at a coherent combination of the new and old.
Much of the credit should go to editor Alyse Ardell Spiegel, although she has the able assistance of time in avoiding confusion among the different chapters of the case. A sad fact, one that will no doubt dawn on viewers halfway through the film, is that so many years have elapsed since the West Memphis 3 were convicted, they have all aged to the point where they would never be mistaken for their younger selves in 1996 or 2000 (the years that HBO broadcast the first two installments).
“Paradise Lost 2: Revelations” pointed a finger at John Mark Byers, the adoptive father of murder victim Christopher Byers and a rather extreme character. He had, among other things, given one of the movie’s cameramen a knife stained with blood (testing proved inconclusive), and campaigned so vigorously against the three suspects that he practically invited scrutiny. While Byers is again a principal figure, in “Purgatory,” he’s switched teams: He not only voices regret about his strident accusations of Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley, but now believes them innocent, and joins the chorus of voices calling for the investigation of Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of victim Stephen Branch, and the only person close to the case who can be connected to the crime scene via DNA.
Berlinger and Sinofsky make use of all manner of footage in constructing “Purgatory,” including deposition videos of chief West Memphis investigator Gary Gitchell (who continues to insist that the original convictions were correct) and Hobbs, who at one point sued Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines, one of the many celebrity supporters of the West Memphis 3, thus putting himself under oath and opening himself to questions about the murders. These sequences are fascinating, as is the very fact of Hobb’s presence in the film; an end title states that certain interview subjects were paid (though it names no one).
The “Paradise Lost” films have probably had a more tangible influence on the cause of justice than any docu since “The Thin Blue Line,” which only had one life at stake. What the three films have ultimately done is not solve a crime so much as expose a resistance to truth that’s endemic to the criminal justice system, here in Arkansas.
“We were impoverished white trash,” Echols says of himself and his fellow defendant, “and I have no doubt they would have murdered me if they could.” What “Purgatory” leaves the viewer with is the horrifying notion that it took 18 years, three movies and a movement to free the West Memphis 3, and it’s hard to believe theirs was the only case of injustice out there.
Tech credits are tops, especially the incidental music by Wendy Blackstone and songs by Metallica.