2011 // Germany - Canada // Werner Herzog // November 29, 2011 // Theatrical Print (Landmark Tivoli Theater)
Into the Abyss might be the closest Werner Herzog will ever come to creating a work of outright agitprop, and yet it’s still light-years from the cinematic polemics of film-makers like Charles Ferguson and Alex Gibney. Herzog’s ambitions are far too multi-faceted and high-minded to indulge in political swipes or straightforward argumentation, even in a film that tackles a topic as contentious as the death penalty in America. At every turn, Into the Abyss proves intriguingly divergent from what one expects from a documentary on a Very Serious Issue, although it is in most respects exactly what one expects from a Werner Herzog documentary.
The entry point for the writer-director’s somber new feature is a shocking and senseless 2001 triple homicide in the Houston suburban-rural fringe community of Conroe, Texas. In separate trials, Jason Burkett and Michael Perry were convicted of committing the murders in the course of a scheme to steal a Camaro, with Burkett being sentenced to life in prison, and Perry to death by lethal injection. In the film, Herzog largely refrains from indulging in his customary lyrical musings, appearing only as the interrogating voice in interviews with Burkett, Perry, and others: family members of victims Sandra Stotler, Adam Stotler, and Jeremy Richardson; law enforcement officials who worked the case; locals who recall encounters with the convicted men; a chaplain and former guard captain from Texas' Death Row; and Burkett’s advocate-turned-wife, whom he married through the glass in the prison visiting room.
Unlike Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost documentaries about the (now exonerated) West Memphis Three—films that simmered with journalistic agitation and white-hot indignation—Into the Abyss isn’t especially concerned with whether Burkett and Perry actually committed the murders for which they were convicted. Both men maintain that they are not to blame for the brutal triple murder, but both are also weirdly elliptical about what exactly happened, and Herzog doesn’t press them on the matter. The film regards the bloody details of the Conroe slayings not as an end, but a means to a sweeping-yet-intimate rumination on American murder, of both the criminal and state-sanctioned varieties. The tone of Into the Abyss is set in its first interview, wherein the Death Row chaplain—after outlining his solemn duties—describes his encounter with a squirrel on a golf course. The anecdote is sort of absurd, and yet it moves the chaplain to tears as he relates it. In that inimitable Herzog way, the film regards the man’s ache with both vague amusement and deep reverence.
Into the Abyss does not spend its time building a case against the death penalty, despite the director’s declaration early in the film that he finds capital punishment abominable. The film is much more interested in reflecting on death and murder as phenomena, on the way that they reach out with scarlet fingers and touch strange places. This philosophical but human-centered approach allows the film to discover some of the rawest moments in any Herzog film since Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Some of these moments are undeniably potent, as when the former Death Row captain describes his own nervous breakdown following the execution of Carla Faye Tucker in 1998. Other scenes contain a more subjective emotional element: Parents will probably be most sensitive to the confessions of Burkett’s dad, also imprisoned for life, as he tearfully describes his memories of holding his infant son and his realization of his absolute failure as a father.
Such heart-tugging is a far cry from the more cerebral, transcendent cogitations of Encounters at the End of the World and Cave of Forgotten Dreams. As a result, Into the Abyss can’t help but feel a bit facile in comparison. It’s arguably easy to achieve poignancy by pointing a camera at a murder victim’s daughter and asking her to talk about her grief, but, as usual, Herzog’s interview methods—the pregnant pauses, the peculiar questions, the intermittent schoolboy coyness—almost always manage to elicit something unexpected. The film regards moments of searing pain and startling eccentricity with the same awed curiosity.
Into the Abyss seems ordained to invite comparisons to In Cold Blood, but unlike Truman Capote’s celebrated non-fiction novel, it has little to say on the relationship between the two perpetrators. Housed in separate prisons and facing different fates, Burkett and Perry barely acknowledge one another, save for the purposes of shifting blame. In the decade since the murders, Perry has maintained a gawky, adolescent countenance and become a born-again Christian. Personable and polite, he betrays no fear of death, but neither does he exhibit any remorse for his deeds. Nor does Burkett, whom prison life has made thicker and tougher, and who maintains that he will one day be exonerated.
The film reserves it most cockeyed fascination for Burkett’s wife, Melyssa, a glassy-eyed murder groupie who has somehow conceived a child with her husband without ever having been alone in the same room with him. (Herzog, clearly amused, asks about a contraband sperm sample, but gets only a non-denial-denial.) The film regards Melyssa with leery skepticism, but is also beguiled with the idea of life emerging so improbably and even farcically from death. It’s a sentiment embodied even more succinctly in a quintessentially “Herzogian” revelation: When the police attempted to move the impounded Camaro years later, they found that a sapling had grown through the floor and into the car.