Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000), Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (2011)
West of Memphis
In May 1993, Jason Baldwin was a skinny redheaded teenager whose favorite activities were listening to Metallica records and fishing behind the trailer where he lived with his mother. His cat, Charlie, would sit beside him; whenever he caught a fish, he fed it to Charlie. Baldwin was sixteen that year, but he looked no older than twelve. In an interview filmed at the time he appears shy and quiet, with an awkward, insecure smile that reveals a snaggletooth. A baggy orange prison jumper hangs like a blouse over his matchstick frame. On the table in front of him are a half-eaten Snickers bar and a plastic bottle of Mello Yello. He turns to the camera.
“I didn’t kill those three little boys,” says the little boy.
This interview appears near the beginning of Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, the first of three documentary films produced by HBO about the West Memphis Three saga—a twenty-year nightmare that has been the subject of a fourth documentary film, West of Memphis; half a dozen books; and tens of thousands of magazine, newspaper, and television features. When watched consecutively, the Paradise Lost films have an effect similar to that of Michael Apted’s Up films, which revisit the same group of Britons every seven years. In both series, we see the principal characters age, shed their youthful naiveté, and pass through stages of cynicism and grief, before ultimately accepting their fate.
While Apted’s films are remarkable for the way they make visible the passage of time, however, the Paradise Lost films record an artificially imposed stasis. The lives of Baldwin and his two friends, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley Jr., froze the moment they were arrested for the murder of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. When at last they were set free in 2011 they were like children again; the world was entirely new to them.
In one of the final scenes in West of Memphis, Baldwin, who has grown tall and gaunt, is taken on the afternoon of his release to a Memphis hotel room. He stares in wonder at a room-service salad. “There’s cheese in there,” he says, baffled; he’s never had a salad with cheese in it. He fidgets with the handle of a new rolling suitcase; he’s never owned a suitcase before. His mother appears at the door; “Mom!” he screams, and he’s again the little boy with the Mello Yello and the half-eaten Snickers bar.
That little boy, despite his obvious terror, had been able to empathize with his accusers.…
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all articles published within the last five years.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.