Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills 1996 ★★★★★

Gut-wrenchingly evocative, social anxieties and U.S. law system blunders inhabit this documentary that is both excruciating and breathtaking. Co-directors Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger explore the trial of three teenaged boys - Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin - accused of the shocking murder of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. Subtle yet striking satanic ritual undertones control much of this story and lead to paranoia, prejudice and ill-conceived judgements.

Starting off at the horrifying crime scene where the three young boys are found, a jarring start. The way in which the boys are killed has a ritualistic feel and that leads to an eruption of satanist occult anxiety throughout the entire country. Something that is consistently acknowledged is the convenience of the accused boy's personalities. Jessie Misskelley suffers from mental problems that lead to he being completely unreliable; Damien Echols dresses in black, has beliefs that are unique to say the least and is fascinated with cults; and Jason Baldwin is an odd kid who just happens to be friends with Damien. The accusation that they were hand-picked by the police who just couldn't handle the media attention and public outcry doesn't seem far-fetched, at all.

A consistent driving force is the overwhelmingly amount of raw emotion in this film which is at its height during interviews with the families of the victims and accused. The mourning families are particularly hard to watch, they are so overtaken by their grief that they frames of mind are skewed away from rational thinking. Contrasting the families of the accused who cling to their hopes that the boys are innocent. Damien Echols is in many respects the star of the show, his interviews are fascinating and at the same time extremely complicated. One moment he will speak right from his heart in a way that will win over all audiences only to have his confused beliefs force us to doubt his honesty. Mark Byers, stepfather to one of the victims, is another complicated character who is easy to empathize with at first, but quickly becomes untrustworthy.

Sinofsky and Berlinger follow and document the trials of all three of the boys with meticulous detail. They hone in the inconsistencies of the system in which evidence is assembled and presented. After Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin are convicted and the credits roll we are left with questions that will likely never be answered and a tragic conclusion to a story still missing most of its pieces. Paradise Lost is one of the most significant documentaries of the last 20 years, and its emotional resonance and relevance don't seem to be fading anytime soon.

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