Paradise Lost

A fascinating, revealing, and deeply disturbing if highly imperfectdocumentary feature (1996) by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, codirectors of the excellent Brother’s Keeper, about the trials and convictions resulting from the brutal murder and mutilation of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. Most of what we see persuades us that two teenage boys have been convicted of these crimes more because of their nonconformity within the community than from any hard evidence (the likeliest suspect, the stepfather of one of the boys, had never been charged). Unfortunately, the filmmakers refuse to deal with their own role in the proceedings, which makes for an incomplete version of the story. Adding to the confusion is the film’s popular assumption that seeing excerpts of a trial somehow qualifies one to reach an independent verdict. Moreover, there are times when the intrusiveness and callow exploitativeness of TV reporters (one early on asks a bereaved mother whether she’s contemplating suicide) seem to be matched by the moves of the filmmakers: though it appears that one of the defendants is being railroaded in part because of his taste for heavy metal, the use of music by Metallica behind much of the documentary footage seems obscene rather than ironic. By the time the verdict is read and the defendant’s mother, sister, and girlfriend are seen rushing into the ladies’ room, you half expect the filmmakers to follow them. Nevertheless this picture is well worth seeing. 150 min. (JR)

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