Following the path of their much-lauded arthouse hit “Brother’s Keeper,” documakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky serve up another absorbing account of fatality’s aftermath in “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills.” Centered on the trials of three Arkansas teens accused of murdering three 8-year-old boys as part of a satanic ritual, the film is both a dark slice of contemporary Americana and a disturbing look at a legal process that seems to distort if not wholly pervert justice.
A bit overlong and sometimes murky in the telling, pic will be shortened and somewhat re-edited before theatrical release, according to its makers; presuming the benefits of those changes, it should engage the attentions of true-crime devotees at artier sites.
Though the trials’ legal outcomes will spark endless debate, the reason for them is tragically indisputable. Pic opens with grisly police videos of the crime scene in West Memphis, Ark., where the nude remains of the three young victims, one of them castrated, were discovered along a creek bank. A month later, under the pressure of considerable community alarm, the police arrest best friends Damien Echols, 18, and Jason Baldwin, 16, after a third teen, Jessie Misskelley, claims he served as their accomplice in the devil-worship slayings.
While Damien and Jason maintain their innocence, their arrests divide their families against a community that stands behind the victims’ kin in their grief and rage. All the principals are working-class, and their expressions of emotion and opinion range from heart-rending to bizarre; Mark Byers, the stepfather of one victim, displays his attitude toward the accused by talking to a pumpkin as he blows it to pieces with a handgun.
When Jessie goes to trial, it becomes apparent that the prosecution’s case is based on little more than his confession, which, as the defense attempts to show , has many dubious aspects. With a 74 IQ, Jessie apparently told the police what they wanted to hear and still got many details wrong. But the confession’s existence obviously counts for more than its faults, because the jury convicts on all counts, and the court sends Jessie to prison for life.
When Damien and Jason go to trial together, prevailing opinion is that given the lack of physical evidence, convictions will hinge on Jessie’s testimony against his supposed cohorts. But that testimony never comes. Instead, the prosecution pursues the satanism angle, and Damien, allowed to take the stand in his own defense, claims that he was targeted by police simply because he wears black, listens to heavy metal music and reads books about the occult.
That sounds all too likely, and when Damien and Jason are ultimately convicted of the three murders, the viewer’s first impression might be to agree with the observer who attributes the case’s arc to “satanic panic.” Yet everything about this fascinating film ends up whispering, “It’s not so simple as that — look again.”
Though they may well have been railroaded by fear and superstition that rocketed past all reasonable doubt of their guilt, the two friends are never entirely convincing as innocents. Jason, portrayed by his lawyers as culpable of nothing more than friendship with an overt weirdo, seems oddly resigned to his punishment. And Damien, who obviously is very intelligent as well as deeply narcissistic, privately relishes the role of “satanic” bogeyman to a degree that will make many viewers wonder if he ever played it for real.
And if he didn’t, who did? Other possibilities are glancingly suggested in court, and “Paradise Lost’s” strangest twist comes when it is revealed that Byers, the pumpkin-shooting stepdad of the boy who was castrated, gave Berlinger and Sinofsky’s crew a knife that contained dried human blood and could have been the murder weapon. Finally, though, such tantalizing clues lead nowhere, except to more uncertainty.
Pic’s culminating ambiguity is one of its strongest, most engrossing elements. But some of what precedes it is merely unclear. What kind of prior relationship did Damien and Jason have with Jessie? What about the alibis of the accused? As currently edited, “Paradise Lost” leaves too many basic questions unanswered, resulting in narrative opacity when human mystery was the obvious intent.
Still, these are minor faults in a film that deserves commendation for carefully registering and skillfully balancing the different viewpoints in a case in which the most potent dangers came not from supernatural forces but from all-too-natural reactions to the brutal murder of children. Pic’s tech credits are well realized.