Into the Abyss (2011)

Directed by Werner Herzog


Into the Abyss is bleak, let’s start there.  It’s a documentary about capital punishment, told through a 2001 triple homicide carried out by two teenaged friends who wanted a red Camaro.  Michael Perry and Jason Burkett were both convicted of the murders of a mother, her son and the son’s friend.  Michael Perry was 18 at the time of the murder and sentenced to death.  Burkett received a life sentence, likely saved from execution by his father’s appearance in court, pleading for the jury to save his life.

Werner Herzog interviews a wide range of subjects throughout the film.  We start with a chaplain and end with a man who worked in the Huntsville, Texas “death houses.”  Both of them express a deep despair in regards to their line of work.  The chaplain explains that he has no answers for why God would allow capital punishment, and the man who worked the executions explains how he quit his job, giving up the pension, because he couldn’t do it anymore.

From the start, Herzog sets up that this is a story about capital punishment and about violent deaths in general, both the ones perpetuated by individuals like Perry and Burkett and the ones perpetuated by the state.  His point is clear, that state-run executions are barbaric.  He explains this to the sister of one of the victims and even to Michael Perry himself.

In all of these interviews, Herzog digs into his subjects in a way I don’t think many people could.  He pushes them for answers, and then when he gets what he’s looking for, gets to the truth of the matter, he steps back and lets the moment linger.  Just about every person interviewed has a moment in which they lose their composure and struggle to regain it.

Herzog interviews the relatives of the deceased and of those in prison.  He interviews law enforcement agents and others who were familiar with the criminals or the crime.  In one of the most peculiar interviews he talks to Burkett’s wife, a woman who met him after his incarceration but insists she’s not one of those “death row groupies” as Herzog calls them.  Her interviews, which only pop up in the second half of the documentary, are the closest thing to comic relief in the story, which says more about the utter bleakness of the story than it does about her interviews.  Still, they’re a bit strange, particularly as she recounts what it was like to fall in love with Burkett, like she’s a character in a cheesy high school comedy.  Herzog, surely sensing the absurdity of the moment, presses her for more information.  You’ve only ever touched his hand, right?  Well what was that like?  He wants specifics, and in many cases he seems intent on getting the interview subject to recognize a flaw in their thinking or perspective.

Early on, in his interview with Perry conducted 8 days before Perry’s execution, Herzog states plainly that he may not like anything about this man, but he respects him enough as a person and opposes the death penalty.  Herzog’s bluntness, though often feeling critical, here comes across in a much more empathetic way.

In the only other Herzog documentary I’ve seen, Grizzly Man, he takes time to appreciate the subject (a man who was mauled by a bear) before then taking time ripping into that man’s life philosophy which got himself and a friend killed.  As a probable nihilist, Herzog has a life view closer to survival of the fittest than to anything read in a religious doctrine, but in Into the Abyss his interview style feels strangely warm, despite all the deep sadness that permeates every moment of the film.

Herzog opposes the death penalty, and this very basic acknowledgement that we shouldn’t allow people to be killed when we don’t have to, suggests a certain respect for life.  And once he makes it clear that he respects you, I suppose, he feels he doesn’t have to beat around the bush.  He really goes for it, and as a result he captures some amazing moments on camera.  Those moments, though, are incredibly difficult to watch at times.

The sadness which opens the film only gets worse as it goes along.  It’s not just that the crime committed was so pointless and violent, but that these are people who never much had a chance.  That isn’t to say Perry and Burkett were destined to commit murder, but one of them had no family, and the other has a father who is just about a lifelong criminal.  Several other interview subjects have been to prison, and in this part of the country, at least in a town with this much poverty, prison seems to be an expectation.

The point seems to be that, just as the state is meddling in life by literally killing people, it’s meddling in their lives in an institutional way even before killing them.  It’s like the state or society perpetuates a framework that ensures a certain group of people will always suffer, and that suffering creates criminals which have to be dealt with.

The idea is that this crime was senseless but somehow something was always going to happen.  Burkett’s father expressed heavy remorse that he wasn’t there to help guide his son, believing this to be his fault as much as his son’s, and the sister of one of the victims explained how she always had a feeling that something might happen to her brother.  We don’t know why she had this feeling.  Maybe it was just a certain way of thinking, or maybe it was some kind of acknowledgement that the place in which they lived, their circumstances, created a higher degree of danger.

Into the Abyss is riveting and raw.  We see the sadness spread from the original crime like ripples in the water.  So many people are touched, whether they knew the victims or not.  It’s just the nature of death, almost as much as it is the specific instance that affects people so deeply.

Up Next: Ace in the Hole (1951), Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (2016), Richard Linklater: Dream is Destiny (2016)

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