Friday, November 18, 2011

Into The Abyss with Werner Herzog

Probably the greatest capital punishment movie ever is Dead Man Walking. The temptation—succumbed to frequently throughout the decades by Hollywood—is to show an innocent man wrongly convicted and killed. It's far more interesting, and fair, to show a heinous criminal being killed.

Werner Herzog takes his own interesting approach in his new documentary Into The Abyss. The German film-maker (Grizzly Man, Rescue Dawn) gives us the story of a brutal, senseless crime that echos of Crime and Punishment.

Two young men kill a grandmother, Sandra Stotler, for her car for a joyride. Before stealing the car, though, they go deposit the body in a nearby lake. When they go back to get the car, it's after dark and the woman's gated community is locked up. So they wait for her son (Adam Stotler) and his friend (Jeremy Richardson), in order to lure them into the woods to kill them—in order to get the remote to get into the community and steal the car. Later the two are captured after an extended gun battle with the police.

One of the criminals, Michael Perry, is given a death sentence. The other just barely escapes that fate and gets 50 years in prison.

Herzog shows his brilliance—repeatedly—here. First, he says right off the bat that he's against the death penalty, and he lets Perry make his case for his own innocence. (He blames his partner in crime, Jason Burkett.) But then, he details the horrific nature of the crimes, and lets the victim's families expound on their lost love ones. This takes the first third of the film. Further, he never lets the movie go on very far without bringing back on the families.

Herzog is determined that you never forget what these two young men did. Further, he presents sufficient evidence of their guilt. He never tries to present a case of innocence.

For Burkett, though, he also unflinchingly shows the tragedy of his life. His father's in jail across the street, after a lifetime of drug use and dealing, and he's interviewed. Apparently he's got a brother in jail, too. Burkett's father is a particularly tragic figure, whose closest familial memory is a Thanksgiving dinner shared with his two sons who were also in jail.

Indeed, to my eye, these people, who have escaped the executioner's needle, are far more tragic types. They seem redeemable and our system is almost completely incapable of providing any redemption.

But even here, Herzog's not taking a bleeding-heart approach. Among the people interviewed are a couple of other locals who were touched, indirectly, by the crime. One of them was an illiterate miscreant who learned to read in jail—and also learned to stay out of jail and go straight.

Jeremy Richardson's brother was himself a miscreant who was arrested at Jeremy's funeral, and who laments having introduced him to the Perry (or Burkett, or both, I'm not sure), but he seems to be doing better now.

In fact, one thing Herzog does is detail the incredible amount of violence, crime and family dysfunction in Conroe, Texas, which can't help but throw into sharp contrast that most of the people manage to survive the craziness without randomly killing people.

A couple of other good segments include the opening, where the priest who works death row describes his experiences doing it, and a segment where one of the executioners describes how he gave up his job and pension after facilitating over one hundred executions.

A weirder part is the story of Jason Burkett's lawyer who ultimately ends up marrying him and—well, you'll have to see it. (Or Google it.) I think Herzog was trying to say something about hope and life, but it struck me as a tragic echo of Burkett's own life. Or maybe Herzog was just recording the facts.

Despite Herzog's inclination, he lets Adam's sister (Sondra's daughter) describe how seeing Perry's execution lifted a huge weight off her shoulders. He prompts her with "Would a life sentence also have worked?" She agrees, but also quickly slips back into "Some people don't deserve to live."

Herzog wasn't trying to make a political statement or even an issue movie, and he succeeds. He's crafted something much more genuine and complex. Now, one of his producers thinks this is a searing indictment of Rick Perry's Texas but I'm thinking it's just like Dead Man Walking: People who are for the death penalty are going to see that the system worked.

I'm not pro-death penalty myself, but I felt like the system worked here. It's tragic, but Burkett was (and no doubt is) a dangerous man, deserving of a long sentence.

And Perry?

Well, I don't know how Herzog felt, but after getting over the jarring incongruity of the smiling, boyish looking Perry claim his only crime was being homeless and accepting charity from Burkett, I became quickly convinced that he was a sociopath of the first order, like that other famous murderous Perry.

Anyway, this is about more than capital punishment, and definitely worth watching if you're interested in crime (or punishment).

The Boy also liked it, though he felt it, as all documentaries, dragged a bit.


  1. I haven't seen it, and probably won't, but I find Herzog a fascinating character himself. (I've only seen Herzog's Grizzly Man but I admire his seeming refusal to compromise in his art and life.) My concern with this movie - and with all arguments against the death penalty - is that the crime's victim is all too soon forgotten. From what you describe, that's not the case here, though other reviews have seemed to dwell more on the tragedy of the protagonists than the victims.

    I believe the State has every right to deprive its citizens of liberty and life after due process. The death penalty should be reserved for the most heinous of crimes - there's plenty of that out there. But, if that's not possible, life without parole - and I mean hard life, with the bare requirements of living provided and that's all - would be an acceptable compromise.

    Redemption lies within all of us - it can be had at any time - and is not the business of the State. The State's responsibility is to protect its citizens from criminals. Long-term incarceration - and even death - for the deserving are among the State's tools.

  2. You seem to be hitting your stride again with this one, blake. I'm encouraged to see it, or at least save it on my Netflix queue.

  3. Actually, that's the beauty of this film, Pete: The instant you're in danger of forgetting the victims, Herzog brings out friends, family, acquaintances, cops, and brings you back to remembering the horrible things they've done.

    The anti-capital punishment guys will see the criminals as victims of the system or society or whatever, and the movie is not without sympathy for them. The most impassioned argument on the anti- side is made by Burkett's father—himself in jail for life.

    Well, that and from the people who actually are there and have to do it. I have sympathy for them, too.

    As I said, I'm against it, but it's not something I lose a lot of sleep over. The more they showed Perry, the more convinced I was he was a monster.

  4. Good review. I'll add it to my Netflix list.

  5. I prefer "Angels with Dirty Faces" for my death penalty movie.

  6. Isn't that the one where the Heavy -- is it Cagney? -- goes all blubbery at the end so that the kids won't emulate him?


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