Guilty...or innocent? You decide, as documentary filmmakers Joel Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky present one of the best fact-based films on injustice and intolerance ever made, according to Judge Bill Gibron.
It's frightening to think they did it. It's terrifying to think they didn't.
They say you can't judge a book by its cover. They also argue that justice is blind. Apparently, "they" have never traveled to the American heartland, where what someone looks like on the outside is more telling and troubling that what he or she has inside them. Intentions and morality are second—nay tertiary, or even further down the determinative food chain—to clothing and personal appearance. It's an actual living, breathing example of style over substance. Certainly, gauging an individual by the first impression you get gives some manner of insight into the type of person you are dealing with, but just because someone courts controversy or challenges conformity doesn't make them wholly antisocial, does it. It doesn't mean that they are capable of the most grievous act against society—murder, does it?
According to the small town of West Memphis, Arkansas, it sure does. Right now, rotting in a prison cell somewhere in the state penal system is a group of men who were once merely isolated, alienated teenagers. They listened to heavy metal music and got into trouble. They dabbled in the dark symbols of said rock and roll, and gained a reputation of being secret Satanists with a taste for blood. Could they be cold-blooded child killers? These hapless young heathens may indeed be guilty. They may also be the victims of the worst instance of railroad injustice in the history of modern legality. It is this very question—guilt by visual association or innocence in light of damning circumstantial evidence—that fuels the continuing fascination with the case. It is also the premise for the documentary masterpiece Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills.
Facts of the Case
On May 6, 1993, the naked and mutilated bodies of three 8-year-old boys were found in a wooded area alongside Robin Hood Hills. It was a mortifying crime, made even more shocking by the ritualistic and sexual nature of the assaults. There were hints of molestation, abuse, and purposeful vivisection. An investigation by local authorities centered on some manner of Satanic cult killing, a new type of crime being championed by law enforcement consultants. Looking around for individuals who would fit the profile, the cops came across Goth kid Damien Echols and his two friends, Jessie Misskelley, Jr. and Jason Baldwin. Each was an outsider and a non-conformist in a God-fearing and pledging populace. In the face of a coerced confession and conflicting forensic science, the three teenagers were put on trial for the brutal killing of three young boys. And as possible leads lay dormant and far more sensible suspects fell directly within the police's path, Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin were kangarooed through a court system that violated rights, reconfigured due process, and purposefully positioned conviction out of reasonable doubt. The verdict would stun everyone and prove that indeed, for the small town of West Memphis, Arkansas, theirs was truly a Paradise Lost.
It's almost become a cliché: the investigative documentary that appears to uncover the truth about a crime committed years before, simultaneously casting doubt on the convictions while pointing proper fingers at the individuals who've gotten away with it for so long. They are not open and shut cases, and the participants play roles far more complicated and incomplete than the standard good vs. evil. Indeed, what these fact films usually do best is cast a disparaging light on everyone—the innocent and the condemned—to show that life is not a series of blacks and whites or rights and wrongs, but ever-darkening shades of gray meant to make men think, not just systematically consider justice. It was just this type of tale that first thrust documentary filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky into the cinematic limelight. Lucking into a story about a socially retarded sibling who may or may not have killed his brother in his sleep, the duo delivered Brother's Keeper, perhaps the best film of 1992.
Mixing sinister shadows with contextually illuminating rays of light has always been the pair's chief filmic paradigm. Instead of taking a clear stand, instead of shifting to one side or the other and championing the criminals outright or supporting the town blindly, Berlinger and Sinofsky do something far more substantial. They sit back and witness, letting the cinematic carrot of possibility dangle like a delicious treat in front of the eyes of the audience. Like a far more balanced version of Oliver Stone's JFK or a rational Rashamon, their second film, Paradise Lost, is a movie laced with potential, prospects, and problems. It never glorifies or exploits the crimes it is concentrating on, nor does it delve into issues meant for mere gratuitous gratification. Like the inspired artists that they are, they let the facts formulate the themes and symbols to tell their story. They just have the innate skill and aesthetic drive to turn it all from prosaic to poetic.
Looking over their oeuvre, one has to be impressed. From 2004's dynamic Metallica: Some Kind of Monster to the aforementioned Brother's Keeper, this duo deserves a place among the greats of the fact film genre. Somehow, between the two, they determine the inner mechanisms of the movie they want to make. Then they go about finding the blueprints amongst the setting, the cogs amongst the players, and the fuel amongst the core foundation of the subject matter. Before long, their device is driving home the dramatics with such power and precision that you can't help but wonder why others can't do the exact same cinematic thing. The answer of course is that they could if they understood narrative the way Berlinger and Sinofsky do. These men don't manipulate or manufacture fact. They don't hype the horrible in a blatant disregard for the righteous. They act like the eyes and the ears of the audience, realizing that we are smart enough to see through the bullshit and pick out the veracity of the variables for ourselves.
In the case of the West Memphis Three, the facts are foggy and constantly being reconfigured. Premises are perverted to fit newfangled crime techniques and issues in our modern jurisprudence that would never be permitted or possible are used and abused by a grotesque good-old-boy network that wants to put away the perverts—any perverts—no matter the stain on justice or to town integrity. Of course, their reasoning is valid: they have three sexually mangled bodies on their hands. Yet what Paradise Lost wants to prove over and over again is that Echols and his friends are targeted because of how they look and act, foremost, and not the CSI-like trail to their devious doorstep. In a clear case of putting the conviction before the trial, these teenagers were tried and condemned in the forum of public opinion and tabloid journalism long before the first witness testified. Questionable tactics are used to gain the necessary confession required to indict, and there is a certain blasé attitude on Echols part that seems to play directly into the police's theory of the killers. Indeed, he seems to purposefully play to the controversy, a lost and alienated kid lapping up his first taste of personal notoriety.
Perhaps the greatest service Berlinger and Sinofsky do in Paradise Lost is turn the typical picture of accused killers into a three dimensional portrait of actual human beings. While the media wants to—rightly or wrongly—turn ever criminal into the boogieman lying in wait to destroy our lives, Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin were all painted as local demons needing to be exorcised. Their love of Metallica, antiestablishment spirituality, and public provocation were the calling cards of small-town troublemakers. The movie, however, adds dimension to their darkness, finding the heart and the soul inside these supposedly heartless and soulless killers. Echols is a tad standoffish, loving every minute of the scandalous, spontaneous spotlight. But under the glare of such scathing scrutiny, Misskelley and Baldwin revert back to what they are—uneducated teenagers unsure about the world around them. The filmmakers find plenty of foils to foul this positive portrayal. The deeds are indescribable and the crime scene footage is just repugnant. Then there are the grieving parents who come across as genuine and despondent. They make us see the true face of murder and how the criminal kills more than just the dead victim.
Still, Paradise Lost never loses its focus. It wants us to find the truth, to listen to the ridiculous prosecution case, the half-baked attempts at defense, and the ongoing suspicion surrounding the father of one of the dead boys, and draw a conclusion not based in belief but in actuality. Being different is not a crime and Berlinger and Sinofsky make it very clear that, at the end of the day, the only reason Echols and the others were brought in for questioning was that they "looked" like the kind of kids who would commit this kind of crime. Had they been Bible-toting yokels who believed in God, country, and guns, they would probably never have been suspected. Even more interesting is what said rush to judgment accomplishes. If the boys did indeed do the crime, it proves outright that profiles and consultant-style law enforcement works and works well. If they are innocent, then such shortcuts undermine the very fabric of our democracy. The Constitution guarantees certain protections from prejudicial prosecution. Sadly, the founding fathers did not find time to include an Amendment regarding letting evidence, not appearance, condemn the citizenry.
It's not just the story that's so spellbinding here. It's story and the storytellers. Berlinger and Sinofsky sync up with this sordid tale and soon we are cinematically breathing right along with them. Every bombshell shocks us, every outrageous miscarriage of justice unsettles and saddens us. Before long, we feel we are living the case right along with the people of West Memphis, wondering what the next sequence will bring, what new indignity will happen to make us pause and reflect on our joke of a judicial system. When the verdict is handed down, it is more inevitable than shocking and it helps to give the story the kind of concerned resonance it needs. Berlinger and Sinoksky understand implicitly what this case stands for, what it means to the broader issues outside of Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin's freedom.
In essence, the post-World War II social order is on trial, one that no longer trusts its neighbors, now locks its doors during the day, and breathes an uneasy sigh of relief when the nightly news report indicates that the vast majority of crime is centered in ghettoes and slums. To watch how these sophist suburbanites react when true horror haunts their little fenced-off fancy is to see the reasons why people are pegged for their appearance, not their actions. Sobering, shocking, and downright unsettling, Paradise Lost is an apropos title. Whatever this thing called America used to be, it died a long time ago. In its place is a governmental monster…or boy-beasts who claim to know the difference between right and wrong, and then pick the perverted. In either scenario, the dream is definitely now a nightmare.
Presented in a 1.33:1 full screen transfer, Docurama's release of Paradise Lost looks pretty good. Originally shot of 16mm film stock, the image has some grain and dirt but, overall, is a presentable, professional offering. The Dolby Digital Stereo delivers clean, clear conversations with decipherable discussions front and center in the mix. Metallica also allowed Berlinger and Sinofsky to use some of their music without the standard rights and residuals hassles, and it makes for a disarmingly creepy counterpoint to the entire production.
The bonus features here are a bit underwhelming. While the additional 45 minutes of Damien Echols testimony is absolutely mesmerizing (watch how the lawyers manipulate and bait the witness) the mostly text-based DVD-Rom accessible material (case timelines, updates, etc.) is not overly impressive. The standard Docurama DVD bios are present, as are filmographies and trailers. As part of Some Kind of Monster and Brother's Keeper, the filmmakers treated us to a full-length audio commentary, discussing their own sense of self (very egotistical) and many production pitfalls and epiphanies. Sadly, no such discussion is offered here. Odd how that most famous case in the filmmaker's history is not given an alternate narrative track.
Some will argue that, when all is said and done, the three defendants at the center of the Paradise Lost legality had their due and day in court. They will point to the prosecution merely doing its job, putting into action what the police provided. They will excuse law enforcement for many of its tainted tactics, arguing that on occasion, a few Constitutional amendments have to fly out the window to round up the truly terrible criminals. And they will point to the dead bodies of the little boys involved, mere children that were mutilated and sexually abused by individuals of unearthly evil. When the sun goes down and they deadbolt the door to their house for the uneasy night of sleep that lies ahead, they will rest somewhat better knowing that the right people were caught and the "true killers" are not still lurking somewhere, waiting to strike again. In essence, it's better to be safe than sorry, and nobody felt secure around Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jr., and Jason Baldwin. They were different; therefore, they were guilty. Yet said culpability is by association only. It's hard to sit back and watch wayward youth shit all over your country, your Christianity, and your conservatism. They have been made to pay for such subversion. But is this the proper price and, more importantly, should they really be paying in the first place? Said queries are at the heart of this miserable matter and Paradise Lost. Sadly, the eventual answer may be more painful than any issue considered.
Not guilty. Paradise Lost is indeed one of the greatest documentaries of all time. All parties involved are free to go—at least, from this court.
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