Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills & Paradise Lost 2: Revelations

Grade : A+ Year : 1996 & 2000 Director : Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky Running Time : 4hr 40min Genre :
Movie review score

There are two tragedies at the dark heart of the “Paradise Lost” documentaries, which chronicle the story of the West Memphis Three. The first is the brutal deaths of three 8-year-old West Memphis boys: Christopher Byers, Steven Branch, and Michael Moore. The second is the trial and conviction of three teenagers who were railroaded into the role of scapegoat: Damien Echols, who was sentenced to death; Jason Baldwin, who was given life; and Jessie Misskelley Jr., who was sentenced to life as well. As the films play out, it becomes obvious that the prosecution’s case is flimsy at best, with evidence that is circumstantial, and a confession by Misskelley that appears obviously coerced under duress, with hours of questioning gone unrecorded before the tape was turned on. The day before this review was written, Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley had finally been released after 18 years of prison after a plea deal that involved a rarely-used bit of legal maneuvering. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely the other tragedy, the death of the three boys, will ever be finished; although evidence now exists that implicates other individuals, I’m not sure it’s enough to bring convictions. Of course, that didn’t stop the prosecution in Arkansas the first time around.

The first film, subtitled “The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” begins with chilling crime scene footage of where the boys were found, underscored by songs from Metallica, the band that is a favorite of both Echols and Baldwin, and to the people of the town, is a sign of them being involved in satanic rituals. A month after the deaths, police bring in Jessie Misskelley Jr., who may have information on the murders, and may have participated in them himself. After two hours of questioning that was undocumented in any way by the police, he then offered up a confession that not only implicated Echols and Baldwin, but also is rife with holes and inconsistencies, especially in regards to the time of day the murders happened. Misskelley has an IQ of 72; his lawyer, who would spend years on the case, argued in Jessie’s trial that the police used leading questions and intimidation to get the confession they wanted out of him. The directors of the “Paradise Lost” films, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, were given unprecedented access to the families and lawyers on both sides of the case, and their camera is in the courtroom from opening statements to sentencing, which allows us an opportunity to make up our own minds. If you’re like me, and most people who have seen the first film over the years, it’s unlikely you’ll think these three are guilty. Of being different in an ultra-conservative (and hyper-religious) community? Yes. Of murder? That’s less certain by the end of “Robin Hood Hills’s” riveting 150 minutes.

Jessie was tried separate from Jason and Damien; by the end of the first hour, he has been sentenced to life plus 40 years. There’s talk on both sides about whether Jessie will testify in Jason and Damien’s trial– he refused, making his confession inadmissible. This makes the prosecution’s case less plausible, especially when you consider that there wasn’t a drop of blood at the crime scene, which is remarkable when you think that one of the boys lost five pints of blood and was castrated. At night. In the mud and water. By three teenagers who could never make the clean, surgical cuts necessary for such mutilation, let alone clean up the crime scene. If they did do this, Dexter would be proud.

Religion plays a central role in the events of the trial. We see the families of the murdered children pray to God, go to church, and even sing his praises through song. But what we hear out of most of the family members is less the forgiving, humble teachings of Christianity and more the fire-and-brimstone, take no prisoners gospel of modern Evangelicals. Only the grandfather of Steven Branch seems to adhere to the Christian idea of turning the other cheek, of forgiveness, and accepting that one day, he will be reunited with Stevie. But the community is convinced that these murders were the work of satanists and cult dealings; one of the “expert witnesses” the prosecution calls in Damien and Jason’s trial is someone who has studied about the occult…at a mail-in university. Without having taken a single class. Why is this important? Because Damien had been studying and practicing the Wicca religion. Adding to that his black dress and love of heavy metal, it’s not hard to see why he made a great boogeyman for the policemen, and the families. At one point in the film, Damien says that he relishes the idea of being the West Memphis boogeyman that parents tell their kids about, but by the time Joe and Bruce turn their cameras on the case again in 2000’s follow-up film, “Revelations,” Damien regrets having said that. By that time, however, the boys weren’t the sole focus of the case…

In the last hour of “Paradise Lost,” we learn that one of the murdered boy’s fathers, John Mark Byers, has given the filmmakers a knife as a Christmas present. They find blood on it, and hand it over to the police. DNA tests confirm that the blood belongs to both Byers and his son, although since they have the same DNA, the test is inconclusive, but the defense puts Byers on the stand to try and get to the truth. Even after he’s left the courtroom, you definitely get the feeling that he knows more than he’s letting on, and in “Revelations,” he is the main focus of the defense’s attempts to win appeals for the boys. His behavior is certainly strange: his way of speaking is more along the lines of rehearsed sound bites than normal speech; while his rage against the three teens is understandable, some of his behavior at places like the crime scene, and when he’s shooting at targets with the fathers of the other boys, is pretty unnerving. And why did he get dentures after marks on the victims were decided to be bite marks, rather than a belt buckle, as was originally thought? And what happened to his wife, who died under mysterious circumstances? At the end of “Revelations,” he takes a lie detector test; he passes, but he’s also highly medicated at the time, so questions remain, although in the years after, his tune has changed, and he’s become an outspoken advocate for the three’s innocence and release.

There is still more to be learned about the case, a lot of which has already been published in books and on websites such as the West Memphis Three Support Group, which is a primary focus of “Revelations.” Debuting next month at the Toronto Film Festival, however, is “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory,” the third documentary where Berlinger and Sinofsky catch us up on the case since 2000; the film will debut on HBO (and in theatres) in January 2012. Of course, the events of the past week have given them a new, unexpected ending, although the details of their freedom leave much to be desired among those who have been hoping for the three’s freedom over the years. (Jessie, Jason, and Damien agreed to what is known as the Alford plea, meaning that the three are allowed to maintain their innocence, but acknowledge that there is enough evidence to be convicted for the crimes.) In addition to the third “Paradise Lost” documentary (which will be reviewed on this site when I get to see it), word has it that Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan (“The Sweet Hereafter,” “Exotica,” “Chloe”) will be making a film on the trial, and the trials that have occurred since. I can’t wait to see how things went down the way they have.

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