Paradise Lost 2: Revelations
Three films into their career as documentary co-directors, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky have found a niche chronicling potential miscarriages of justice as they happen. With Brother's Keeper, they experienced the satisfaction of seeing a happy ending come to the story of an eccentric outcast coerced into confessing the murder of his brother. Their second subject still seems some ways away from reaching that conclusion. In the 1996 film Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills, Sinofsky and Berlinger explored a grisly case: the brutal homicide of three young boys in the small town of West Memphis, Arkansas. Standing trial for the murder were three high-school friends with a shared interest in black clothing and heavy-metal music. Described by the police, and subsequently by the press, as a ritualistic slaying, the Robin Hood Hills murders evolved into nothing short of a modern-day witch trial, with sketchy evidence, a seemingly coerced confession (from a defendant with an IQ of 72), and community prejudice all working to close the case prematurely. Presented in a style as absorbing as a mystery and as disturbing as a thriller, Paradise Lost had the upsetting quality of an all-too-recognizably true story, an everyday tragedy in which viewers could do nothing to avert the inevitable conclusion. Returning to West Memphis, the 2000 documentary Paradise Lost 2: Revelations picks up the story and, almost unavoidably, places the documentarians in the thick of it. Spurred by the original Paradise Lost and mobilized online, activists now work to free the three young men, dubbed the West Memphis Three. The attention has made Berlinger and Sinofsky somewhat unwelcome in West Memphis. Denied access to hearings that might lead to a retrial, they instead focused on other efforts to free the convicted killers. Ultimately, their film itself becomes one such effort. Where Paradise Lost cast strong suspicion on John Mark Byers, the stepfather of one of the murdered boys, its sequel stops just short of labeling him a killer. Driven by a bizarre need to self-dramatize, Byers proclaims his innocence to the skies, performs strange rituals at the site of the crime, sings hymns, and delivers rambling, self-pitying monologues that protest, perhaps too much, the cruelties of fate. In the process, he contradicts himself numerous times and refuses to submit to the dental tests that could exonerate or implicate him. In putting his freakishness at center stage, Paradise Lost 2 uses the same strategies that Berlinger and Sinofsky's previous documentaries condemned: The bizarre-looking and -acting Byers would fit most people's idea of a murderer even if the evidence didn't implicate him far more heavily than it does those convicted of the crime. That evidence, carefully presented here, does seem to implicate him: Where the original Paradise Lost allowed viewers a sliver of doubt about its subjects' innocence, its sequel does not. Its directors may have forever crossed the line dividing journalism and activism, but the ongoing case, as presented here, seems to demand the shift.