Varieties of murder
While Herzog’s last documentary delved into prehistoric caves where ancient paintings lie hidden, his new one, Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life, penetrates the modern darkness of the prisons and crime-ridden towns of Texas, the death penalty capital of America. Since state execution was restored in the US in 1976, Texas has executed four times as many prisoners as Virginia, the next highest. By implication the “abyss” means both the abyss of violent crime, — and the film highlights one series of those; and the abyss of cruel and unusual punishment — and directly and by indirection it concentrates on that too. Herzog focuses on a single event, the killing of three people ten years ago, a crime perpetrated with the sole aim of stealing a red 1997 Camaro from a a house in a gated community, and the two young men convicted of the triple homicide: Michael James Perry (smiling and protesting his innocence), executed only eight days after Herzog interviewed him, and his accomplice, Jason Burkett, who spoke to the director from prison while serving a life sentence. Into the Abyss probably adds little, if anything, to the richer texture of knowledge provided by Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, a book that covers a similar crime by a couple of young men and is similar (but more intense) even in the involvement of the author with the killers; the meticulous recapitulation of the crime; the detailed study of the victims’ lives and the perpetrators’ lives; and the agonizing lead-up to execution and the execution itself. Nonetheless it is valid to say as Allan hunter of Screen International has, that this film “Suggests a cinematic equivalent of Truman Capote’s masterwork In Cold Blood.”
This lacks the distinctive flavor and starkly original perception of Grizzly Man or Encounters at the End of the World, and yet it is vintage Herzog, because the material is powerful and vivid and it is presented with distinctive elegance, class, and moral integrity. And there is the advantage of film. While in Capote’s book we can imagine the voices, here we actually hear the voices and see the faces of some very colorful white southerners, some educated, others not, who have been to and still to some extent occupy their own very dark places. Herzog teases out their testimony with remarkable subtlety and sympathy. We never see him but we hear his own voice with its very distinctive timbre and accent, and in every frame we feel his presence. These people, like all Herzog’s subjects, have been out to the edge of the world and may have trouble ever finding their way back.
It will be hard to forget the grinning, choirboy face of Michael James Perry, who with a person he knew, but had not been till recently close to, Jason Burkett, was convicted of killing the three people — though he denies it, and calls his execution an “atrocity.” The State of Texas executed Perry in Huntsville, Texas on July 1, 2010, the 14th execution in the state that year. He was 28. When he was Incarcerated he was 18. Though they must cross the border line of cage and glass between prisoner and visitor, there is nothing like the intimacy of Herzog’s interviews with Perry and Jason Burkett, or with Burkett’s father, in prison for life himself, whose tearful plea to the jury to spare his boy probably helped save Jason from execution. Herzog views the crime and punishment from every angle. He is well served by police footage both of the lethal injection execution chambers at Huntsville and of the crime scene (shot when the blood was barely dry) at Conroe and the expressively named neighboring town of Cut and Shoot. It isn’t easy to understand what happened; nonetheless a sheriff in charge of the case takes Herzog over the ground explaining the investigation. The young men killed one young woman at the house, and then later, returning, found the gate to the community closed, and killed two others just to get the clicker that would let them back in. And they dropped the bodies hither and yon.
The relationships between the people are complicated, almost inbred. The visible sufferer, her life ravaged, is Lisa Stotler-Balloun, daughter/sister/aunt to two of the victims, who grants that “an eye for an eye” may be morally unjustifiable, but still took comfort from witnessing Perry’s execution. Also interviewed is the Rev. Richard Lopez, who is present at the executions, and Death House captain Fred Allen, who after the execution of a sole female, said enough!, and quit, forfeiting a pension to get out of a process that had come to make him sick. Herzog speaks to other relatives, and some of them feel guilty too. Both the crimes and the punishments seem to exude a pervasive sense of culpability. Where will it end? All the while Herog’s voice soothes the interviewees, and convinces them of his perception and respect and honesty: he seems always one step ahead. Burkett’s wife appears in the film, a free woman, who seems a well-educated one, who corresponded with, fell in love with, then met and married Burkett when he was already in jail. Their only allowed contact has been holding hands under supervision by guards, but she claims to be pregnant with his child, by what method of impregnation she won’t disclose.
Herzog affirms that he opposes capital punishment but has denied that this is an “issue film.” It clearly focuses on crime and punishment with equal intensity and no ulterior motive. On the other hand the revival of intense anti-capital punishment activity surrounding the Troy Davis case as well as outrage over the cheering for the execution of of Michael Perry at the Republican presidential candidates’ debate have apparently led Herzog to push for earlier release of the film to coincide with the current surge of anti-death penalty feeling.
Restrained music, delicate organization into sections, and beautifully edited and handsome digital photography all contribute, along with the director’s hypnotic and inimitable voice, to making this a documentary that is as technically refined and satisfying as it is distinctively humane and sensitive.
DIRECTOR: WERNER HERZOG
STARS: JASON BURKETT, MICHAEL PERRY, ADAM STOLTER, LISA STOLTER-BALLOUN, RICHARD LOPEZ, FRED ALLEN, WERNER HERZOG
COUNTRY: GERMANY, CANADA