Into the Abyss ****
Directed by: Werner Herzog.
All they wanted was the red Camaro. Michael Perry and Jason Burkett were teenagers – just over 18 – and they knew another kid, Adam Stotler, and his family had a Camaro they wanted to drive. They planned to go over to his house and ask for a place to spend the night, and when everyone was asleep, steal the car. When they get there however, Adam is out, and only his mother is at home. They change the plan, tricking her into letting them in the house; they shoot her in the head, wrap the body up and dump in a nearby lake. When they return however, they discover that the gates of this gated community are locked for the night, and they don’t know they code. Undeterred, they sit and wait – and when Adam and his friend Jeremy Richardson – come back, they fool the two of them, take them out to the woods and kill them, then go back to Adam’s house and steal the Camaro. And Adam’s truck for good measure. They spend the next couple of days joy riding and bragging about what they did. The police move in, a shootout ensues, but the pair is quickly arrested. Perry confesses leads investigators to the bodies of the two boys and at trial is found guilty and given the death penalty. At a separate trial, Burkett is also found guilty and given life in prison with no possibility of parole for 40 years. What may have tipped the jury away from death was his father speaking at the sentencing hearing, blaming himself for what his son did, because he spent most of his own life in prison.
This is the story that the Werner Herzog’s new documentary Into the Abyss tells. It is one of the saddest films of the year, and one of the unlikeliest anti-death penalty documentaries I have ever seen. I have seen many anti-death penalty documentaries over the years, and normally they focus on flaws in the system – taking on the cases of innocent or possibility innocent people who have been condemned to death. That isn’t what Into the Abyss is about. There is way too much evidence against them to believe that Perry and Burkett are innocent of the crimes they were convicted for – although Perry says he didn’t do anything, and Burkett says he was there and didn’t kill anyone no one really believes them – not even Herzog. When he first meets Perry he tells him “Just because I’m here, that doesn’t mean I have to like you. I just don’t believe that the State should execute people”.
What Herzog does in Into the Abyss is detail the crime, and then details the sad lives that everyone involved in the crime have lived. You do feel worse for Burkett, who with a father constantly away in jail and a mother in disability raising five kids in a trailer park, never seemed to have much of a chance. Perry did have a more supportive family, but chucked it all away because he didn’t want to go to school – he didn’t want to do much of anything except hang out and do drugs. He admits as much, and he leaves a lasting impression on the movie, with his goofy smile. He still seems to be just a kid. Still, the details of both of their lives leading up to the murders are heartbreaking, even if their stories are far too commonplace. The interview he gets with Burkett’s father, also in jail, is just plain sad.
But Herzog never excuses their crimes. He interviews the police who investigated the crimes, and the family members of the victims, who are still dealing with their loss 10 years after the murders. Richardson’s brother, who looks tough with his tattoos, can barely hold himself together on camera, breaking down in tears multiple times as he talks about his brother. And Adam’s sister (who also lost her mother in this crime) is just as shaken up, although she appears to be able to hold herself together just a little bit better. Their interviews make one thing clear however – they will never get over their loss.
Herzog also gets an interview with a man who during his time with the Texas penal system (where this crime took place) oversaw over 120 executions. It got to a point where they were executing two people a week. He was a staunch advocate of capital punishment when he started, but after so many executions, he just couldn’t take it anymore. Even if you agree that some people deserve to die for their crimes and the State should have the right to execute people, you have to ask yourself if the State has the right to ask their employees to do it. How is a prison guard in charge of executing prisoners supposed to deal with being there and strapping down the condemned and watching them die. Over 120 times. I’m not amazed that some guards eventually crack under the weight of what they have seen – I’m amazed more don’t.
Werner Herzog is one of the mad geniuses of film. He often injects some strange things into his documentaries – like the part of his last documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about cave paintings, where he ends the film talking about albino alligators for some reason. What all these Texans made of this crazy German is something I don’t know, but at times, they do seem to be shaken by his bluntness. I mean this in a good way – Herzog doesn’t pussyfoot around. But he also doesn’t go off on any of his tangents in Into the Abyss. He realizes this story is sad enough as it is, and it doesn’t need these forays. There is only one moment – in the movie’s first scene, an interview with the Prison Chaplain, whose job it is to be with the condemned until they die, where Herzog asks a completely off the wall question. The Chaplain talks about golfing, and seeing the trees and having encounters with the squirrels. Herzog, always interested in animals, asks the Chaplain to tell him about one of those squirrel encounters. His answer surprised me. From such a seemingly innocent question, comes the first time in the movie that someone will break down crying. It won’t be the last. Herzog has made a powerful film about the death penalty, and he does it not by skirting the issue, but by facing it head on. If you want to execute someone, the least you can do is get to know them.