INTO THE ABYSS B
USA Germany Canada (107 mi) 2011 d: Werner Herzog
What starts out as one of the best Herzog films in years, a taut police procedural where Herzog and his cameras follow a police officer as he retraces the scenes of a triple murder, where he slowly and with careful consideration builds a case against the two 19-year old perpetrators, Michael James Perry and Jason Burkett, who in 2001 went on a drug and alcohol binge in Conroe, Texas, senselessly killing three persons in their desperate attempt to steal a car they wanted, a flashy red 1997 Camaro, which they openly drove in the nearby town of Cut and Shoot for less than a week until they were captured in a shootout with police, using the stolen identification from the murdered victims. Despite the riveting details, their significance takes on a life of their own when we discover one of the murderers is scheduled for execution within a week. While both were tried separately, Herzog never makes clear why only one is chosen for execution, an unrepentant Perry who going all the way back to the first grade had a history of untreated mental illness which eventually became known as “antisocial personality disorder” (which was NOT mentioned in the film), while the other is given a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 40 years. Their murderous spree is reminiscent of Truman Capote’s chilling account documented in the book and movie IN COLD BLOOD (1967), where the dimwitted Perry reminds viewers of Robert Blake, where killing someone was a way of proving his barely developed manhood, an act that resonates with utter incomprehensibility. But rather than dig deeper into the psychological implications of the crime or the criminals involved, Herzog changes the focus entirely, basically preaching his own message that the death penalty is no deterrent to those who commit senseless murders like these.
This is a double-edged sword with differing results, for as long as Herzog sticks to the criminal acts themselves and the horrible impact the murders continue to have on the victim’s family, marching out family members who couldn’t be more haunted by the deaths, the film remains vividly intense and real, but when he sticks in his own message that God or Jesus would not be advocating on behalf of capital punishment, he’s changing the nature of the game midstream, not only lessening the impact of compelling human footage, some of which is superb, but also showing a bit of bad taste by undermining the sincerity of those who chose to speak their minds on camera, some with obvious difficulty, as this pervasive theme was not their message, but is editorializing by the filmmaker. Herzog interviews a remorseful prison Chaplin who recalls the difficulty of walking the final few steps with death row inmates, while also observing the prison graveyard, a makeshift plot of ground filled with crosses and no names, containing only the inmate prison numbers. In the State of Texas, 473 inmates have been executed since 1982 with another 334 awaiting their turn on death row. One of the more convincing testimonials comes from Fred Allen, former chief guard at the “death house” of the Huntsville State Penitentiary, a man who accompanied over 125 inmates to their deaths by lethal injection, a routine that took its personal toll when he was asked to walk a female inmate to her death, leaving him traumatized afterwards, where the sheer number of executions for one man to supervise leaves an unfathomable psychological impact that cannot be measured. Allen eventually quit his job, costing him his lifetime pension, adding that while he was once an ardent advocate in favor of capitol punishment, he now believes the death penalty is no deterrent whatsoever to preventing crime.
What’s perhaps most surprising is that the State of Texas would allow access “inside” their prison system, even allowing footage of the death chamber. Herzog was allowed access to the condemned prisoner a week before his scheduled execution, where he had about a half hour to interview Michael James Perry, who still looks and behaves like a kid, a guy with no comprehension whatsoever of what he did, who still insists he has nothing to do with the crimes and that the State is making a terrible mistake. What’s clear is that the State of Texas chose a case where the evidence is irrefutable, where there is simply no dispute over whether Perry was present at the murder scenes. What’s nightmarish about his case is that he has the brain of an eight year old kid. Many of those interviewed reveal they have little to no education, where the common factor is the community has barely risen above illiteracy, where stories of senseless deaths are common, where some have learned how to read while in prison. Jason Burkett’s father is also in prison serving time for his second murder, where he’s strangely found religion while incarcerated, serving out his own 40 year sentence. He gets emotional when asked to reflect upon his impact on his family, where he has to confess he feels like an utter failure. But perhaps the most loopy individual is Melyssa, who along with her father comprise the defense team for Jason Burkett, who eventually wrote letters and fell in love with him, inspired by the sight of a rainbow seen stretching from outside to inside the prison after her first visit with Burkett, a sign that in her eyes proves his innocence, eventually becoming his wife and now bearing his child. It seems Herzog can’t help himself sometimes, as he gets sidetracked by the crazy antics shown by many of the colorful individuals involved, losing his focus on the seriousness of the original story, which he calls "a gaze into the abyss of the human soul," instead becoming enthralled by how amusing many of the characters are captured on film, where what’s fascinating and largely unexplored is what a significant role poverty and lack of education play throughout this small town community.