“Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory,” the conclusion of the 18-years-in-the-making trilogy on the West Memphis 3 and the 1994 triple murder for which they were convicted, was originally reviewed by Variety on Sept. 12 at the Toronto Film Festival.
That review asked whether the ending yet to come — attached to the film as it premieres Oct. 10 at the New York Film Festival — would change the viewing experience. The answer is yes. Whereas the Toronto-premiered version ended with a simple title announcing that Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley had been freed after 18 years and 78 days behind bars (with Echols on death row), the epilogue fashioned by helmers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky provides details of the tortured political and prosecutorial efforts made by Arkansas to protect itself from litigation.
It also presents the final court appearance of the three no-longer-young men, who were coerced into pleading guilty with a profession of innocence (the so-called Alford plea). Broadly, the film’s ending is unchanged as regards the fates of the three. But like its predecessors, “Purgatory” is steeped in righteous indignation, a sense of thwarted justice and lessons gone unlearned. The Toronto fadeout arguably let auds off easy; the new ending doesn’t.
“Some are happy, some are angry and some are perplexed,” says Arkansas prosecutor Scott Ellington, “and that’s the case at the end of every trial. This one’s no different.” Even for viewers who might believe the defendants to be guilty, Ellington’s statement makes for chilling cinema. As per their usual m.o., Berlinger and Sinofksy don’t comment; they just let people bury themselves with their words — and, to some degree, their votes: Although it goes almost unmentioned, the case was concluded without the original judge, David Burnett, who for years denied retrials and rejected new evidence that would have freed the men. Judicial misconduct? No. Burnett was simply unavailable, having been elected to the Arkansas State Senate.