As a general rule Werner Herzog movies aren’t exactly heartwarming, uplifting entertainment. However, Into The Abyss might qualify as his most depressing cinematic experience and for him that’s saying a lot. The film started out as a documentary about the death penalty in America until Herzog stumbled into a single case that proved more interesting to explore than a general discussion of the issue. Herzog explicitly states that he opposes the death penalty early on, but the film is not merely a polemic examination of the topic. Instead, like all of Herzog’s films, this is a study of some of the darkest corners of human existence.
When making a film about capital punishment in the United States, there’s really only one place to go, so Herzog and his camera crew headed down to Texas. There he found two prisoners with an unsettlingly idiotic and mundane crime. Michael Perry sits on Death Row in Hunstville, Texas’ execution assembly line, with only eight days left in his short life while speaking to Herzog. His partner in crime Jason Burkett on the other hand is serving a 40-year life sentence for the same crime. Together they killed three people in 2001, essentially because they wanted to drive a Camaro. One week after the crime, they were arrested following a shoot out with the police.
Herzog interviews the two convicted felons as well as a few other people surrounding the case including family members of victims and the man assigned by the state to execute Perry. The filmmaker apparently only got a single, brief interview with each of his subjects and he uncovered their personal turmoil and the details of the crime as he spoke with them. Knowing that specific detail of the production isn’t necessary to appreciate the film, but it does showcase how remarkable Herzog is at probing his subjects. He gets the interviewees to openly reveal themselves in a manner that would require hours of conversation for other filmmakers. Uncharacteristically, the director never appears on camera in this doc nor does he provide his usual philosophical narration. He’s only heard asking questions off camera as if he realized that the people he was filming were infinitely more interesting than anything he could add and the film is certainly more powerful for it.
While everyone in the movie certainly has a sob story to tell, Jason Burkett’s father Delbert might be the movie’s most tragic figure. The only reason that Jason avoided the death penalty with his accomplice was because of Delbert’s testimony. Currently serving his own life sentence, Delbert pleaded with the jury to spare his son’s life because the upbringing he provided essentially guaranteed a lifetime of crime. He’s a broken man when Herzog finds him, but admirably reflective and sadly conscious of how he failed himself and his son. Through Delbert, we see the tragically unavoidable cycle of crime that so many under privileged young men are born into. Neither he nor Herzog condone his actions, but it’s virtually impossible not to empathize with his situation.
Perhaps the most compelling figures involved with the story are those only tangentially to the crime. There’s Melyssa Burkett, Jason’s wife whom he met while he was in prison. She quickly fell in love with the murderer from afar and now dedicates her life to gettinghim released. Speaking from a suburban home, she seems remarkably calm and collected, but also found a way to impregnate herself with Jason’s child. Her odd love affair with the convicted murderer is a disturbing representation of the cultural fascination with criminals and romanticism of that lifestyle in America that perpetuations the problem more than anything else. Then there’s Fred Allen, who was in charge of executions in Huntsville for years. He spent hours with the men he executed and carried out well over 100 of them during his career. His interview is filled with pain and emotion as he remembers the experiences that led to him coming to oppose the death penalty. His story and memories are probably some of the most succinct and profound denouncements of state execution without ever grandstanding or forcing his point.
There might not be anything uplifting about the experience of watching Into The Abyss, but there’s certainly plenty of material that qualifies as enlightening. Though fascinated by extreme personalities with dark histories, Herzog is ultimately a humanist and his film is a cry for mercy for even the most disturbed criminal minds. Perhaps the most disturbing part of the film is how mundane and common this story truly is. Thousands of criminals currently sit on death row, each leaving the same trail of tragedy and remorse from their crimes. How to end this cycle is unclear and Herzog doesn’t dare offer any sort of solution. Instead he offers a snapshot of the layers of tragedy surrounding any such case with the pain and endless questions it raises proving that at the very least perhaps this whole death penalty thing isn’t the best option.
Directed by: Werner Herzog
Top image: A scene from Into the Abyss. Courtesy Mongrel Media.