Paradise Lost begins with the disturbing images of the brutal murders of Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore, three second-graders. Discovered in a ravine in Robin Hood Hills in West Memphis, their bodies had been bruised and mutilated. A frantic search for suspects turned up Jessie Misskelley, Jr., Damien Echols, and Jason Baldwin, three local teenagers. The ensuing hysteria would be fueled by the belief that the occult had played a part in the murders, and that Echols was a member of the occult. Through interviews with parents, lawyers, and the accused, Paradise Lost gives the viewer a front row seat to the hysteria and mayhem surrounding these murders.

The case is immediately complicated by the town’s frenzied reaction. West Memphis is clearly a God-fearing place that sidesteps forgiveness for Old Testament judgment. Relatives of the victims do not seem overly concerned with the lack of evidence or with the need for a fair trial. Echols, meanwhile, waits for his trial in jail. His black hair, clothes, and heavy metal music paint him as a Satanist to locals, but his mild demeanor and intelligent disposition have "misunderstood teenager" written all over them. The lack of evidence becomes even clearer during the trial, when the West Memphis Police Department admits to losing blood samples and to failing to transcribe most of Misskelley’s confession.

This doesn’t seem to bother the town or the court. To them, the case is pretty straightforward: several young men involved in satanic activities butchered three second-grade boys. Even the local media concentrates on the sensational elements of the case. Finally it seems that only the HBO camera crew believes in the possibility of the teenagers’ innocence. They follow much of the defense’s reasoning, trying to cast suspicion on others, such as the erratic John Mark Byers, Chris Byers’ stepfather. There is also the mysterious African American who was seen in the woman’s restroom at the local Bojangles, covered in blood, on the same evening as the murders. While these leads are intriguing, the evidence is once again slim to non-existent.

This finally leaves the makers of Paradise Lost at a dead-end. There isn’t a final confession—as in The Thin Blue Line—that ties the loose ends together. The viewer is also left at a dead-end, realizing that he or she will have to head back to the video store for the sequel (which still doesn’t solve the case). There is also a certain uneasiness concerning particular segments of the film. Basic facts have been excluded while other information has been withheld until the right dramatic moment. A proper time line for the murders—how long the children had been missing, etc.—is never presented, and this is essential to understanding evidence presented during the trial. We are not told that John Mark Byers had beaten his stepson with a belt (the same evening that the children disappeared) until much later in the film. This may be an effective way of casting suspicion on Byers, but seems dishonest here (especially since there is no real evidence linking Byers to the crime).

Paradise Lost avoids much of the sensationalism that usually comes with crime film, but lacks the framework and poetry necessary to transform itself into a larger statement. Is the film, as the title implies, about evil? If so, what is its focal point? The murderers? The hysterical citizens? The media who exploit the story? It isn’t clear. Paradise Lost supplies images of pathos, hysteria, and corruption that follow three brutal murders in West Memphis, but the filmmakers are unable to shape the material into a coherent statement.

Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.



Bruce Sinofsky—Director/Producer/Editor
Joe Berlinger—Director/Producer/Editor
Robert Richman—Photographer
Loren Eiferman—Associate Producer
Sheila Nevins—Executive Producer

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