By: Henry J. Fromage (Three Beers) -
On August 19, 2011, a nearly twenty year saga of ignorance and legal failing finally came to a close. The West Memphis Three, wrongfully imprisoned for the brutal murder of three grade school boys in a sensationalized case involving purported witchcraft and satanic ritual, gained their long overdue freedom. From the start, a documentary crew from HBO documented every step of the way. This was fortuitous for the accused, as without the publicity they drubbed up when they exposed the mockery of justice that the trial became, it’s all-too-likely that the three boys’ protestations of innocence would have fallen on deaf ears.
Because, of course, everybody’s innocent in prison
The Paradise Lost series actually consists of three documentaries, the third of which has been nominated at this year’s Academy Awards. The first took advantage of unprecedented access to document the investigation and trial. The second examined the ongoing appeals process years later, as well as put forth a theory as to who my have actually committed the crime. The third does much the same ten years after that, although it has a new theory to put across and the boon of an all-too-rare happy epilogue.
I watched these films as a seven-hour marathon, and there’s a lot to be said about taking this approach Due to the length of time that passes over the course of these films, they play out almost like an extremely dark version of the 7-Up series. We see all of the principals change and grow with the murders serving as a fulcrum to their personal arcs. Sure, it’s voyeuristic as all hell, but fascinating.
There’s a reason why we all love this so, and it’s not intellectual
Another huge reason for how fascinating these films are is the ridiculous amount of access the filmmakers have, particularly in the first installment. Right from the get-go, the squeamish should be warned, as the recovery of the bodies is shown without pulling any punches. From there, every principal of the case is interviewed all along the way, many of them larger than life.
Literally and figuratively
The result is a 360-degree view of a complex case the likes of which we may never see again. AS far as the miscarriage of justice aspect of it at least, I firmly hope that I am right. Regardless, it is unlikely that any judge will submit to having a documentary crew in his courtroom after this.
The second and third film feature an awful lot of recapping. Because they are so spread out, and in the interest of making each an independent whole, this is understandable, but it still mars the marathon approach to viewing them. Also, the production values are nothing to write home about.
The principal issue I had with the film is its bias. There’s nothing inherently wrong with picking a side, and there’s no disputing the good that supporting the West Memphis Three did for them and the concept of American justice in general.
An unfortunate side effect of this, though, is the filmmakers’ curious mission to find the real killer. Just about the entire second film is spent putting forward one theory, using evidence even more circumstantial and inconclusive than that used to convict the three boys. When, in the third film, they switch tracks and suggest another suspect, there’s something wrong with you if you don’t get a bitter taste in your mouth.
Unless you’re Natalie Maines. Please share some more painfully uniformed opinions with us, Natalie. We’re all dying to hear them.
At the end of the day, no single person has been rightfully convicted for these murders, and smearing people’s lives and reputations with shakily-supported accusations is the height of journalistic irresponsibility. If the good done by these films didn’t outweigh the bad, it would be difficult not to come down harder on them.
Some ethical issues raised by these films may tug at you as you watch, but there’s no denying that this is an incredible look at one of the biggest legal stories of the last twenty years. The announcement of the obligatory Hollywood adaptation should come as no surprise. I’ll welcome it if it proves half as interesting as these documentaries.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time a body is seen or described
Take a Drink: every time Mark Byers looks or says something creepy
Take a Drink: whenever devil worship or witchcraft is mentioned
Drink a Shot: each time a verdict is given
Take a Double: whenever a new “suspect” is put forward