Catalog Review: Paradise Lost (1996)

It’s been nearly 20 years, and still, the case of the Robin Hood Hills child murders is fresh on the minds of the American public.  The defendants, known as the West Memphis Three, have been in the news recently due to developments in the case, including new forensic evidence that calls into question the verdicts handed down to the three young men in 1994.  These young men are Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Miskelly.  Three young men who were simply different than the rest of West Memphis, singled out for the clothes they wore, the music they listened to, and the town’s ultimate paranoia:  Occultism.  Convinced that these boys were killed as part of a sacrificial ritual, the town can’t do anything but unleash their anger on these young men, even though the evidence does very little to support their involvement.

Anyone familiar with the film, or the case, knows that there is a Paradise Lost 2, and this year’s Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, which is up for the Academy Award for Best Documentary.  Where the case goes beyond this film is wild and unimaginable, but it’s a story left to a different review.  Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky gained unprecedented access to the case and the families involved, telling the story as it unfolds in unflinching detail.  Often, the images are disturbing and hard to watch, the description of the crimes worse than most gory horror movies on the human psyche.

Which is really what this film comes down to:   Were these boys really misguided, or even evil?  Or were they simply the political scapegoats needed in a search that turned up very little evidence, and very few viable suspects?  Again, the truth of the matter is explored in the sequels, this film merely introduces the three young men, and their ordeal.   Jessie Miskelly Jr. is a 17 year old boy in the film, with the mental capacity of a 2nd grader.  Jason Baldwin is a 16 year old child, confused throughout most of the film.  Damien Echols, self-assured and quick to use his mind, he is the only one not afraid of the authorities, and for that simple fact, he is singled out as the evil ringleader.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to look at this film and call the three boys scapegoats, not only because of what has happened since, but how much the social consciousness of the country has changed.  We’ve been through two very messy wars, the restoration of youth innocence has never returned since Vietnam.  However, this case in particular is a great example of something that is less likely to happen post-Columbine, when the national consciousness has a better view of who these people are.  Remember, even the Columbine shooting was blamed on music and violent video games, before the nation woke up and realized it wasn’t either of those things that cost so many lives, rather, it was the lack of any parental supervision that allowed the boys to become monsters.

Here, that feeling is never present, Damien, Jessie, and Jason look like what they are:  Just young boys caught in a veritable whirlwind of legal preening and police double-talk.  The mania of their town, combined with their differing attitudes toward religion, music, and local society, put them in a position that is every American’s worst nightmare:  Wrongfully convicted of a heinous child murder.  But the question this film poses is the most complicated one related to the case:  If these three boys didn’t do it, then who the hell did and why didn’t the police investigate beyond them?

As I mentioned before, Paradise Lost barely begins to scratch the surface of these questions, it’s the two sequels that really provide the meat of the story, and the final 16 years of the case are covered in those two films, so really this film is just a tease to the entire story.  At the time, it was a revolutionary documentary, and HBO did well to put it into the national consciousness.  However, it was the decision to keep following the case with a close eye that would eventually make the Paradise Lost films some of the most relevant, yet shocking films to ever be released.  The reading of the convictions (spoilers, I guess) is still shocking to watch, as Echols’ face drops when he realizes his confidence that truth would always be served came across as arrogance in killing children.   Also notable is this is the first time Metallica allowed their music to be used in a film, and justifiably so.  The music makes everything more horrifying.


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