Into the Abyss
Herzog’s moving view of Death Row
"Into the Abyss’’ could be the title of every movie Werner Herzog has ever made. Has any other filmmaker devoted so many years to documenting and dramatizing the human condition at its most extreme? His previous feature, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,’’ brought 3-D cameras into a prehistoric cavern and at times it seems the people in his films, real and imagined, have never come out. The savage inside the civilized is his great subject; that and, every so often, the other way around.
This time Herzog takes on the death penalty. He’s opposed, as you’d expect, but where other directors might fashion a polemic, he pushes in, wanting to know more. The “abyss’’ of the title could stand for the execution chamber at the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas, but it takes on other meanings as this unblinking, terribly sad film unfolds. It refers to the void of sense around a person’s murder, for one thing, and the crushing norm of poverty and crime in rural America. And to the dark ethical abyss one has to cross in order to kill a man in the name of the law.
Much of the film is taken up with recounting a specific case and its long tail. In October 2001, two young men in Conroe, Texas, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, shot and killed 50-year-old Sandra Stotler because they wanted the red Camaro in her garage. Later that night, they murdered her son, Adam, and his friend, Jeremy Richardson. Arrested within the week, they both proclaimed their innocence against a mountain of evidence. Burkett got 40 years; Perry was sentenced to death and was executed by lethal injection in July 2010.
Herzog interviews everyone relevant to the case and then some: the killers, the victims’ families and friends, arresting officers, a retired executioner whose regrets run soul-deep. The director talked to Perry through a plexiglass prison wall eight days before the execution, and the first thing you think is: This kid murdered three people? Perry had found religion by then, and his open face and friendly manner are discombobulating. Either he has transcended his situation or remains oblivious to it; either he’s a holy fool or just a fool. Herzog, as ever, is alert to both possibilities.
“Into the Abyss’’ is full of forensic minutiae but it rarely bogs down; the director wants to give us all the data and let us process it ourselves. The movie’s an “In Cold Blood’’ with a patient, persistent German interlocutor instead of Truman Capote turning cartwheels in prose. Herzog pauses to sorrow with Burkett’s father, himself in jail for much of his life, as he wonders if the athletic scholarship he turned down as a teenager might have altered his son’s path. He listens to Richardson’s heavily tattooed older brother pour out his grief at being the “bad son’’ who wasn’t there when the kid needed him.
Indeed, what Herzog almost accidentally captures in his viewfinder is profound and unsettling: an entire American underclass where at least some prison time is the norm and where only luck and the grace of God keep a person from either wrong end of the shotgun. There are perpetrators here and they need to be held accountable, but “Into the Abyss’’ makes clear that everyone is also, to one degree or another, a victim. Not of “society’’ - that’s too PC for a pessimist like Herzog. Just of life, and the beasts within. To ask the state to add to the cruelty, the film implies, is only further unreason.
And yet life forges ahead, blindly. “Into the Abyss’’ has its resident fruitcake in Burkett’s wife, Melyssa, a bright-eyed Death Row groupie (even though she denies it) who wooed Jason while he was in prison and who says she is pregnant with his child despite the fact that they have never done more than hold hands. Perhaps she smuggled his sperm out. Perhaps she’s the cracked Madonna humanity deserves. Herzog, as ever, is alert to both possibilities.