MOVIE REVIEW: Into the Abyss
Directed by Werner Herzog
Werner Herzog’s piercing voice is unmistakable, equal parts raspy, lyrical, frank, and cagey. There’s also a mystical quality to his vocal tenor, which has the ability to shift tones depending on whatever strange subject German-born filmmaker is currently exploring. For his latest non-fiction venture, Into the Abyss, a sweeping yet personal examination of the death penalty’s social and ideological ramifications that contains countless priceless moments of Herzogian prose in action, the director dissects a Conroe, Texas triple homicide case from October, 2001. Not only does Herzog cast his net wide, interviewing nearly every person affected by the crime (perpetrators, victims, prison guards, chaplain), he unearths some deep emotional wounds in his subjects, revealing the ideological shifts and justifications each person experiences throughout the prolonged ordeal.
Into the Abyss is not about the court case of Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, the two men convicted of killing Sandra Stotler, her son Adam, and his friend Jeremy Richardson. While there is the standard police procedural analysis, Herzog is more concerned with the ripples of this heinoius story, how the choices of everyone involved affected the others in the long term. When Herzog sits down to interview Perry, who supposedly murdered all three victims so he and Burkett could steal the Stotler family Camaro, he stands to be executed for his crimes in eight days. The two discuss morality, judgement, and God, among other subjects, but there isn’t a sense of immediacy in Perry’s voice. When Herzog presses him on this fact, Perry explains that he feels “weighed down,” unable to sustain the necessary tenacity to fight what he calls an unjust verdict. Not surprisingly, Perry remains a cipher throughout.
Herzog never directly addresses if he personally thinks Perry deserves the death penalty, but the premeditation and brutality of the crimes are often referenced, captured through brutal crime scene footage and damning DNA evidence. Still, considering Herzog's choice of interviewees who are nearly unanimously critical of the law, the film’s opposing position is pretty clear. Two of the most powerful interviews in Into the Abyss, separate talks with Fred Allen, a former “Death House” Prison Guard Captain, and Reverend Fred Lopez, the chaplain who holds the inmate’s leg as the lethal cocktail is delivered, represent the level of complexity Herzog attains through a simple one-on-one conversation. In one particularly haunting moment, Allen confesses how broke down emotionally, finding his “real self” in what would turn out to be his final job. All this coming after Allen shepherded over 125 executions throughout his career (two a week in the early 1990s). In typical fashion, when Herzog asks strange, tangential questions when the subject matter gets too heavy, injecting a sense of absurdity and levity when it's needed most.
Even though Into the Abyss shouldn't be considered a great Herzog documentary (hell it’s not even the best one of 2011!), it's still a valuable document/mosaic on the crippling nature of judgement, how surface level representations often fail to capture any shade of the truth. Through the seemingly innocuous story of two young murderers and the many lives they impacted, Herzog successfully connects common threads (abandonment, guilt) that bind the guilty and innocent together no matter the context, and for that Into the Abyss remains a must-see.
Into the Abyss is currently playing at the Landmark La Jolla Village Cinemas