Into The Abyss: A Tale of Life, A Tale of Death

It’s been a little over a month since Werner Herzog took me to Conroe, Texas, the setting of his second documentary released this year, Into The Abyss. Time has passed, yet the chills in my blood from some of the interviews Herzog conducts reappear the second I begin thinking about them. Herzog uses Death Row as a jump-off point to tackle a countless number of societal issues tied to the idea of morality. It’s a portrait of people in a town, and these universal themes aren’t preached about or discussed openly; Herzog’s too gifted for that. He instead peels back layer after layer, until we’re looking deep into the true nature of humanity– the titular abyss.

Michael Perry and Jason Burkett were two young men in Texas looking to steal a car. Perry kills three people with Burkett as his accomplice, joyride for a few days, then get locked up after a shootout. Burkett receives a life sentence, while Perry is sentenced to death. The film is a series of interviews, each equally fascinating and absorbing. We meet Perry and Burkett, Burkett’s father, a close friend and past accomplice of Burkett’s, the brother of one of the victims, the daughter of the owner of the car, the bartender at the bar Perry and Burkett frequented, the officer who prepares those on Death Row for execution, the chaplain who touches their leg as they die, an officer who quit working for Death Row years ago, and a woman who fell in love with Burkett after his incarceration who insists she is not a “Death Row groupie.” As we learn more about Perry and Burkett’s crime, we begin to see how their parents and their town on the whole shaped them into the killers they became.

Herzog is a brutally honest and efficient interviewer. His first interview with Michael Perry begins with a statement that while he doesn’t believe in the death penalty, it “doesn’t necessarily mean that I have to like you.” At times, Herzog shows his trademark amusement with some of the nuttier subjects– someone begins talking about squirrels on a golf course and you can hear the jump of delight in Herzog’s voice. He also never backs away from sensitive subject matter. His frankness with the relatives of victims caused me to squirm in my seat, not because I didn’t want to hear what they had to say, but because it’s difficult to observe naked grief. He also seems to question and lightly mock those deserving of mockery, like the local who claims to have been stabbed with a screwdriver a foot long in his side without needing to go to the hospital. Herzog doesn’t openly scorn them; again, his tone shifts, and those familiar with Herzog’s body of work will see his enjoyment of the absurd.

It may seem to those who read a synopsis of the film that it attempts to condemn capital punishment. The beauty of Into The Abyss is its willingness to let the audience see what it wants. One could view the complacency of the residents of Conroe to witness Perry and Burkett’s immoral ways as a parallel for America’s complacency with prisoners getting murdered. Certainly the story of the former prison worker who quit his job due to a crippling case of guilt is a compelling argument for abolishing the death penalty. And yet I left the film with an overwhelming feeling that people are products of their legacy and environment and are wildly unlikely to change. The final scene includes a moment in which we believe a murderer, despite serving a life sentence, is still procreating and sending new children out into the world. If Burkett turned out rotten because his father was locked up for most of his childhood, as Burkett’s father insists, then how are we supposed to think Burkett’s son will turn out? One could interpret the ending as a hope for change, but I felt a deep resignation, as if Herzog was implying that evil begets evil. Whatever he meant to imply, he refused to spell out. Into the Abyss is a perfect example of a master storyteller delivering a simple, efficient, and utterly human story.

~ by russellhainline on December 7, 2011.

3 Responses to “Into The Abyss: A Tale of Life, A Tale of Death”

  1. Sounds like tough going – but rewarding viewing.

  2. I can’t wait to see this film.

  3. […] AWARD: To Werner Herzog, for releasing two sensational documentaries, Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Into the Abyss, in the same year. Share this:FacebookTwitterDiggStumbleUponEmailLike this:LikeBe the first to like […]

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