Paradise Lost

A fascinating, revealing, and deeply disturbing–if highly imperfect–documentary feature 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 victims, hasn’t even been charged). Unfortunately, the filmmakers refuse to acknowledge 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 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 some of 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 songs by Metallica behind much of the footage seems obscene rather than ironic. By the time the second trial’s 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. Berlinger will be present to discuss his film at both evening screenings on Friday and Saturday. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, September 27 through October 3.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.

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