There were enough sensational true-crime mysteries embedded into the saga leading up to last week’s release of the West Memphis Three — the trio of young men exonerated after spending eighteen years behind bars for the heinous murder of three young boys in rural Arkansas — to fill a whole season of Law and Order episodes. The case was filled with the kind of details even Thomas Harris couldn’t have dreamed up for his most depraved murderer. It’s the kind of miscarriage of justice that would have kept John Grisham typing late into the night. Likewise, it’s not hard to imagine how a filmmaker like Michael Mann might fashion a dark and depraved thriller or prison drama in which the wrongfully accused teens become the story’s vindicated protagonists.
But there isn’t even a hint of the prescribed procedural one might expect in the first feature film based on this incredible who-done-it, which is now being fast-tracked into production. Instead, director Atom Egoyan is less interested in examining the gorey details or shining a light on the case’s heroes and villains than pulling back and taking a broader view of how this kind of crime insidiously affects members of the community both directly and indirectly related to the murders. Egoyan is essentially interested in making an emotional ethnography of a community in crisis — a powerful and unique approach the Canadian director mastered in his adaptation of Russell Banks‘ “The Sweet Hereafter.”
It’s one thing to shoot a faithful telling of Banks’ story about tragedy’s lingering half-life. But there’s something admirably bold — radical even — about Egoyan’s commitment to contemplatively exploring the contours of communal crisis in a case as full of high-profile players and hot-button issues as this one. Few true-crime sagas have galvanized Hollywood to throw around its financial and political muscle like the plight of the West Memphis Three — a trio of young men who were exonerated late last week by DNA evidence after spending eighteen years behind bars. Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelly were dubbed the ‘West Memphis Three’ after being hastily convicted as teenagers for the brutal murder of three young boys. Even though the case against them was based on the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence (the teens were into metal bands and therefore assumed to be Satan-worshipping killers) — it ultimately took two award-winning documentaries, a non fiction bestseller and a battery of celebrities — including Johnny Depp, Peter Jackson and Eddie Vedder — to reverse the convictions and free the three men who have now spent more than half of their lives in jail. It’s a story almost more chilling for its implications for those of us who don’t have the long arm of the media fighting for our civil rights.
That said, it should come as no surprise that this case has become such a cause celebre. Fifteen years ago, we became similarly obsessed with the fate of the West Memphis Three’s after catching a Sundance screening of “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” — the initial documentary chronicling the panicked witch hunt that landed the three teens in prison, and in Echols’ case, on death row. After the pair of filmmakers made a follow-up film, “Paradise Lost 2: Revelations,” which provided further evidence of the teens’ innocence, there was no shortage of people who down the rabbit hole of moral indignation, erecting web shrines to the West Memphis Three complete with countdowns to Echols’ final appeal before execution. Apparently that sense of outrage extended to the likes of Johnny Depp and Peter Jackson, both of whom ended up bankrolling subsequent investigations and the call for a mistrial based on the new exculpatory DNA evidence.
Sinofsky and Berlinger have shot a third installment of what’s now become a landmark franchise in advocacy documentary filmmaking. “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory,” which is set to debut next month at the Toronto International Film Festival, will document the the final phase of the case leading up to the West Memphis Three’s release from prison. We’d be willing to bet that this is far from the last film in the series. Even though Egoyan is taking a more academic approach to the story; it’s hard to imagine Sinofsky and Berlinger aren’t eager to figure out who really committed those murders. Whatever happens, we’ll be watching.