In Texas, they execute their “bad” people. The years spent waiting on Death Row are compressed into a grim yet succinct ceremony which is carried out with callous precision and cold order. The journey from holding cell, to gurney, and “into the abyss”- post lethal injection – is completed within minutes. The case file is closed and all those affected try to move on with their lives. In his film Into the Abyss, documentary leader Werner Herzog introduces two inmates, whose crime is used to explore the societal environment of Conroe, Texas, prison life, and capital punishment in America.
Murder is always senseless. But it becomes even more disturbing when murder is committed on a whim, ‘just because’ and over a material possession. The crime in question begins with the coveting of a hot red Camero owned by Sandra Stotler, a middle aged mother living in a gated Texas community. Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, both aged 19, both raised in a town where camper trailers and dilapidated trucks were the substitutes for warm beds and stable homes, wanted to take the car for a joy ride, so they killed her, her son and his best friend. It’s as simple as that. Using police footage from the crime scenes, and a participatory approach to questioning, Herzog leads Perry and Burkett through informal conversations that reconstruct the events of that night and the days subsequent to the murders. We learn that Perry sits on Death Row, and Burkett, who resides in the same prison as his father, was sentenced to life. Allowing the most poignant moments to occur organically, what emerges from the film’s discourse is the contrast between the thoughtless crime against the focused urgency of Perry’s fight for his right to life. Eight days away from being executed, Perry, disillusioned and appearing unremorseful, thinks he might still have a chance. Herzog objectively presents the case; can robbing a victim’s life actually be compensated through the arranged death of the perpetrator.
The circumstances of the events presented in Into the Abyss, are sad and gut wrenching, yet my emotional response was not peaked during Perry and Burkett’s exposés but rather, when the environment of living in Conroe, Texas was probed. Burkett’s father plays a significant part in describing their impoverished society, his regrets as a father and his profound feeling of failure. Also affecting are the scenes with Stotler’s daughter, who recounts the tragedies that have infected her life, pre and post murder.
Although Into the Abyss makes for a compelling documentary in terms of subject, there is an emerging trend in Herzog’s last two documentary features that has me worried. In his previous works, up until Encounters at the End of the World, equilibrium between form and content was assured. Respectful of his documentary’s focus, the subject matter explored was always coupled with the Herzog magic of awe-inspiring landscapes and photojournalistic sensitivity. What we expect from the Herzog brand is visual and oral poetry within the very real and often dark subject. In Cave of Forgotten Dreams I felt the Herzog charm slipping, and in Into the Abyss it is below the surface. His distinctive narration, which is the quintessential element that forms the rhythm and creates a profound connection to his films, is unfortunately absent. The emotional content of a Herzogian documentary is still present, yet the empire of inspiring images has been replaced with convention. Perhaps it is his preference for digital format over film format that causes that special something to escape. It may also be that I no longer have the capacity to be amazed by a Herzog documentary. I really hope it’s not the latter. With twenty-five documentary features, nineteen fiction films, and countless shorts under his belt, Herzog is a prolific and masterful filmmaker. His connectedness to the human condition is unparalleled in cinema, and it would be a shame to see such empathy disappear.