Get local news delivered straight to your phone

Since Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky have made two documentaries about murder trials, Brother’s Keeper and now Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, it might seem that they have an affinity for accused killers. Actually, though, their specialty is the painfully unsophisticated. In both films, the American justice system attempts to steamroll suspects who can’t begin to comprehend the seriousness of the charges against them. This time, though, the outcome is more ambiguous.

In 1993, three 8-year-old boys were found murdered in a wooded area in West Memphis, Ark.; one of them had been genitally mutilated. The police soon began to make a case against three teenagers, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley. The latter was the key to the prosecution’s charges: The mildly retarded boy was subjected to 10 hours of coercive interrogation, only two hours of which was recorded by the police. After he was told he had failed a polygraph test—he hadn’t—Misskelley “confessed” to helping Echols and Baldwin commit the crime.

The police and the local media then told the shocked local community that Echols and Baldwin, heavy-metal fans who’d done some preliminary investigation into such adolescent diversions as Wicca and the writings of Aleister Crowley, were Satanists who’d butchered the boys in a cult ritual. Berlinger and Sinofsky’s cameras (some film, some video) start rolling as the trials begin: first Misskelley is brought to trial separately, and then Echols and Baldwin together.

The parents of the three victims—especially churchgoing, pistol-packing John Mark Byers—announce their certainty that the defendants are guilty; for the camera, Byers’ wife, Melissa, exults at the possibility that Misskelley will be anally raped in prison. The parents’ ferocious calls for vengeance, delivered in vivid Bible Belt parlance, will disconcert those who are more comfortable with the spirit of the New Testament than the Old. Unlike residents of more diverse and secularized regions, the citizens of West Memphis are eager to confront the devil—maybe a little too eager.

The case against Echols and Baldwin is weak, but so is the defense mounted by their attorneys. (It’s unlikely that any of the lawyers or “expert” witnesses in this film will be getting new business based on their cinematic performance.) Baldwin doesn’t take the stand, but Echols does, and his unconventional manner does him no good. Under other circumstances, his distracted superciliousness might simply seem that of a smart, nonconformist kid trapped in an Arkansas trailer park; since he’s on trial for murder, however, his contempt for his neighbors could be seen as potentially homicidal.

We can't make City Paper without you

$
$
$

Your contribution is appreciated.

Berlinger and Sinofsky have said they went to Arkansas assuming the three teenagers were guilty, but began to develop serious doubts as the two trials unfolded. Their film is equivocal—some have found it maddeningly so—but clearly sympathetic to Echols and Baldwin. (This is reflected in part by the Metallica soundtrack, donated by the band after its members decided the defendants were being railroaded.) Toward the end of the documentary, the defense proposes another possible murderer, and the filmmakers are inextricably involved in this development; the possible suspect, who’s featured prominently in the documentary, gave a knife to a member of the crew, and the knife had on it traces of blood (human, it turned out).

Such intimacy with the subjects of their story has proved controversial; after an invitational New York screening, O.J. Simpson lawyer Barry Scheck and other attorneys denounced Berlinger and Sinofsky for depicting lawyer/client conversations and other private moments. The filmmakers earned that access, however, by spending months in West Memphis getting to know the players in this drama before they ever turned on a camera. Under Arkansas law, they wouldn’t have been able to bring their video gear into the courtroom if any of the defendants or the families of the victims had objected. Instead of barring the cameras, the film’s subjects reveled in the attention, perhaps unwisely. Still, next to the vulgar, hectoring style of the local TV reporters, Berlinger and Sinofsky’s conduct seems to have been rather restrained.

As a portrait of a community, Paradise Lost is gripping. West Memphis emerges as a living time capsule of American small-mindedness, a place where Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street has been only slightly updated over the last 75 years. The filmmakers’ instincts aren’t satirical, however: They respectfully watch these people grapple with the implications of their grief, anger, and fundamentalist Christianity. (Particularly striking is the grandfather of one of the victims who insists they must forgive the killers so they can be reunited with the boy in Heaven.)

As an account of a murder trial, however, Paradise Lost is less satisfactory. The 150-minute film sometimes dawdles, and the filmmakers’ cinema vérité style doesn’t always advance the story. It’s fitting that the film ends murkily; so did the trial. Still, some narration or talking-head commentary could have made things clearer in places.

Originally made for HBO (and shown on that channel in June), Paradise Lost also seems a little premature. It ends with the close of the second trial, but other legal proceedings are ongoing, and there have been some significant developments in the lives of some of these characters. Three of the parents of the victims have subsequently been arrested for assault or manslaughter, in addition to other felonies, and one died of what may have been a drug overdose. With these sort of events continuing, it almost seems that Berlinger and Sinofsky should set up permanently in West Memphis, making Clintonland’s true-life equivalent of Heimat.

Another group of young outcasts tangles with the law in Sleepers, director Barry Levinson’s film of Lorenzo Carcaterra’s book, but the result is much slicker. Though Carcaterra’s scenario (adapted for the screen by Levinson) also features murder, torture, and loss of innocence, it builds to a resolution that tidily files away the most disturbing moments. The movie begins as a study of the horror of being young and powerless but ends bathed in the glow of bogus omniscience conveyed by a Hollywood-style sting.

Growing up in the mid-’60s in the Manhattan neighborhood then called Hell’s Kitchen, four teenage boys are inseparable: Michael (Brad Renfro), Lorenzo or “Shakes” (Joe Perrino), Tommy (Jonathan Tucker), and John (Geoff Wigdor) engage in frequent pranks and run a few errands for local mob boss King Benny (Vittorio Gassman), but they’re not bad kids. Indeed, tough-but-fair local priest Father Bobby (Robert De Niro) counts them among his favorites. One day, though, they hijack a hot-dog vendor’s cart and send it careening down the stairs of a local subway station; the cart slams a surprised commuter against a wall, seriously injuring him. The four friends are then sent to an upstate reform school, where boys sitting out a portion of their childhood are known as “sleepers.”

At the Wilkinson Home for Boys, the inmates are routinely tortured and raped. Led by smug sociopath Sean Nokes (Kevin Bacon), a cadre of guards singles out the four friends for mistreatment. Shakes, the literary one, imagines escapes inspired by The Count of Monte Cristo, but flight is not possible. The boys must live with the abuse, the memory of which haunts them long after their release.

Some 10 years after the experience, the four largely avoid each other. Only Tommy and John (now Billy Crudup and Ron Eldard) are still pals, and they’ve become cold, embittered thugs. One day they happen to encounter Nokes in a bar in the neighborhood. After a quick reunion, they shoot him to death.

Michael (Brad Pitt) is now an assistant district attorney, who improbably manages to get the job of prosecuting his old friends. Secretly, he contacts Shakes (Jason Patric) and lays out his plan: With the help of Shakes and their mutual friend Carol (Minnie Driver), Michael will lose the case and Tommy and John will go free. In the process, the other guards who abused the four boys will also be destroyed.

This conspiracy depends heavily on the remarkably cooperative King Benny, and requires a significant sin from Father Bobby. Also necessary is a patsy defense lawyer who will rise the occasion, Danny Snyder (Dustin Hoffman), and a judge who will sit by and let one of Nokes’ pals implicate himself in testimony that is utterly irrelevant to the defense’s case. Naturally, all these haphazard elements mesh perfectly.

I haven’t read Carcaterra’s book, which he says is a “true story” but has been widely assailed as a work of fiction. As presented by Levinson, though, the story seems suspiciously pat and conspicuously literary. The Count of Monte Cristo motif, for example, recalls Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in which Stephen Dedalus imagines his Irish childhood as a prison term from which he must escape. And the progress of Michael’s conspiracy could hardly be more implausibly facile.

Oddly, Levinson doesn’t attempt to sell the story’s veracity with gritty atmosphere. Instead, Sleepers is frequently arty and abstracted, a fugue of self-conscious tics and different film stocks (shot by Fassbinder/Scorsese veteran Michael Ballhaus). Despite the movie’s overwhelming macho—and authoritative supporting-role performances from elders De Niro, Hoffman, and Gassman—the effect is diffuse and oblique. Sometimes the director even slips a speech behind the John Williams’ score, or loops and overlaps it as if doing a dance mix of the dialogue. Apparently, Levinson decided the tale was so predictable that he didn’t need to really tell it.

Reality and fantasy circle each other warily in Sleepers, which can’t seem to decide if it wants to be a bummer or an uplifter. (Characteristically, the sexual-abuse scenes manage to be both discreet and exploitative.) Perhaps this is because Levinson loses his way once the parallels to his own much-documented childhood (see Diner, Avalon) disappear. The hard-edged Scorsesean feel of the early scenes, buttressed by period-setting songs from the Four Seasons and Donovan, goes soft in the post-reform-school sequences, as the director indulges such sitcom tricks as transmuting the grown-up Tommy and John back into their childhood selves as they sit at the defendants’ table. Carcaterra’s book may tell a true story, but such moments emphasize its fairy-tale aspects.

Hollywood tough guy and Shakespeare buff Al Pacino calls his directorial debut Looking for Richard, but what he really seems to be looking for is a way to film Richard III without tangling with the recent screen adaptation in which Ian McKellen played the hunchbacked heavy as an English Mussolini. Enlisting such fellow high-profile actors as Alec Baldwin, Winona Ryder, Aidan Quinn, Kevin Spacey, and Estelle Parsons, he stages the play’s best-known scenes. Interspersed with them are interviews with scholars, actors, and mostly clueless men and women in the street, as well as numerous shots of Pacino and his friend and collaborator, Frederic Kimball, goofing around. Jazzy and jokey, the result is a film that makes the case for taking Shakespeare seriously while not taking itself seriously at all.

Pacino clearly loves Richard III, and sometimes seems to be overplaying his common touch. When the actor hammily pretends to be perplexed by the play, the film, or both, it seems (as someone once said) he doth protest too much. His juxtapositions are occasionally sly, as when he contrasts the somber thoughts of British experts with a U.K. debit card that features a Shakespeare hologram and a Brit who praises the playwright as “a great export.” Still, little is added by the brief comments of such actors as Kenneth Branagh, James Earl Jones, and Kevin Kline, although it’s amusing to see John Gielgud and Vanessa Redgrave sticking so close to form (supercilious and political, respectively).

Mostly, the asides are as flip as Howard Shore’s music is ponderous; when the score thunders over the final battle, shot as a silent spectacle with a red tint, Pacino seems to be playing Eisenstein to Shore’s Prokofiev. But that grandiose moment, like almost everything else in this short-attention-span film, doesn’t last long enough to become annoying. Fortunately for Pacino, the play’s the thing. Without the forward motion of its plot, Looking for Richard would have all the drive of a No Doubt video.CP