When I took a documentary class in college, this film was brought up time and again as a bastion of great documentary filmmaking. A combination of luck, skill and compelling story led to a thorough examination of a vicious crime and the terrible outcome. But after hearing about this film, reading reviews about it, and knowing some people’s reactions towards it, I was reluctant to see it. Depressing documentary movies are the worst part of the film watching experience because the horrors and depressing parts of the film all happened to someone or something at a given time. It wasn’t just the figment of a filmmaker’s imagination or a configuration of based on true events. No. These boys were tortured and murdered and three other boys were made scapegoats for a whole town’s outrage. This happened. This is still happening. And that is why it sat in my queue for so long. Once it fought its way to the top and was sent to me via snail mail, I understood why it was so lauded in that film class so long ago.
Three young boys were found tortured and murdered in a patch of woods known as the Robin Hood Hills in West Memphis Texas. The whole town was in an uproar about this senseless crime, most importantly the parents of the victims. After a month of investigation, three teenage boys were arrested and accused of ritualistic murder. The boy who confessed and accused the other two boys of murder was submitted to a ten-hour questioning session where he was prompted several times as to the location and time of the murder by the policemen. This boy had an IQ of 72 and was a very impressionable young man. On the back of this confession, the other two boys were hauled in and put on trial in the county that the crime had taken place. With no physical evidence linking the three boys to the crime and only the questionable confession of a mentally deficient teenager, they proceeded to trial. But the outcome had already seemed decided. The two boys were guilty of being different. They both listened to metal music, had long hair, wore dark clothing and explored unconventional religions. So despite the complete lack of evidence, the flimsy credibility of the expert witnesses for the prosecution, and the injustices the policemen committed along the way, these three teenage boys were given incredibly harsh sentences with one condemned to die by lethal injection.
The filmmakers were given access to an incredible wealth of material and interviews. Everyone participated in the movie that was involved with the case, from the victims’ families to the accused to the lawyers and even the judge on the case were all in turn interviewed. This allows for a rich and intimate study of the crime but also the atmosphere in which these boys grew up. This is a poor town. People live in trailers, have babies outside of wedlock, get married, divorced and re-married again but throughout it all there is a strong conviction of faith. Not just general faith. But real organized religion type faith. Faith that God is real, that Satan is real and that this crime happened because some Satanists made it so. In many ways this town is a modern update of Salem Massachusetts during the witch trial days. The three teenage boys were this town’s witches. It doesn’t matter if they were guilty, they were different from the rest of them and they should be punished because of it. This difference was latched onto by the press covering the investigation and the trial. The media put pressure on the police officers to find someone they can pin the crime on. They condemned these boys by detailing each teenager’s love of metal music and that genre’s connection to the occult and Satanism. They interviewed the victims’ families and show just how shallow prodding questions can be. All of this in search for content, for a way to sell airtime and newspapers. With all of the convincing accusations in the papers, what else could the jury do besides call these boys guilty?
Paradise Lost is taught in film classes for reason. Seemingly simple and straight forward, once it is analyzed, it reveals to be a much more complex and invigorating film. These documentarian explore each thread, give as much contextual evidence as they can and make you feel like this town exists despite is garish exaggeration of religious sentiment. If this film has been sitting in your queue for years like it had mine, I would suggest moving it to the top and exploring a difficult yet fascinating subject.