German documentary film-maker Werner Herzog [Grizzly Man and his most recent documentary on cave art in France, The Cave Of Forgotten Dreams] takes on a macabre American Gothic-esque tale of death and life. It is equal parts Capote’s In Cold Blood and an expose on the no-less-grisly underside of capital punishment. A particularly timely movie in light of the recent Troy Davis execution in Georgia, Into The Abyss turns the lens on a triple homicide case in Conroe, Texas. Teenagers at the time of the crime, the movie centers on Michael Perry and Jason Burkett ten years later—Burkett is sentenced to life in prison and Michael Perry is facing execution.
While documentaries are inherently “biased” in that they present a position, Herzog’s approach is fresh and interesting. The focus is not on the issue of guilt or innocence—as such, it is not a who-done-it crime procedural. There is no confusion on Herzog’s personal opposition to the death penalty, but as an interviewer, he has an uncanny way of educing visceral, evocative, and unexpectedly eloquent responses from his subjects. For example, when he asks how “something feels,” rather than drawing bafflement, he elicits trenchant answers such as when he asks Jason Burkett’s wife to describe what his hand feels like over hers or how it felt for Jason’s father to be chained next to his son or when he asks the prison chaplain to “please describe an encounter with a squirrel.” His interviewing style, at worst is a bit unsettling, but for the most part, is surprisingly disarming. Into The Abyss makes copious use of police video of the crime scene, as well as footage of what the execution room looks like, grimly named “The Death House.” The interviews with the surrounding characters are what really offer some truly unique perspectives and pack an emotional punch. The segment with Jason Burkett’s father, who himself is serving a prison sentence, is especially poignant. His plea to the court at the sentencing to “please do not kill my son” is a stark and haiku-like encapsulation of just what capital punishment means at its most uncomplicated—taking away a human life.The segment with Fred Allen, a captain in the Death House unit, who after unstrapping his 125th prisoner from the gurney could not bring himself to do it one more time is especially powerful in its insider perspective on the “process.” His conviction that “no one has a right to take a human life,” is cogent in the context of seeing the damage his work did to him and his transformation from a man simply committed to “carrying out the law in a professional manner” to one who could not physically or emotionally continue to do it.
Into The Abyss also does an excellent job of portraying the milieu of violence that haunts the small Texas town, appropriately entitled the “dark side of Conroe.” As such, it also reminds the audience that capital punishment is meted out to people of different backgrounds. It’s a bleak reality—generations of families in prison, rampant violence, struggling working class, gated communities…Jason Burkett’s father, serving a sentence himself, blames himself, explaining how his son never had a chance. When he describes the moment when they were handcuffed together in the same prison bus, he heartbreakingly narrates that he felt like a “total failure as a father, being there with my baby son. Doesn’t get any lower than that.”
The film’s pacing seems reflective of the complexity of the thorny issue of crime and punishment, yet steers clear of dogmatic asides, opting to simply present things as they are. The daughter of the one of the victims describes that she was shocked to see that Michael Perry was “just a boy” and not the monster she had imagined him to be, yet she feels like a weight is lifted off her shoulders when he is executed—her words are a small example of just how slippery the idea of retribution and, even more so, justice is.
Into The Abyss does a tremendous job of humanizing such a broad, firebrand issue as the death penalty. It manages to steer clear of normative polemics or moralizing, instead opting for a subtle view into what it actually feels to take away a life.