In Conroe, Texas, 2001, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett broke into the home of an acquaintance, Jason Stotler, in the hopes of stealing a new car. When their plan began to unravel, Perry shot and killed Stotler’s mother. After dumping the body, they then killed Stotler and another friend in order to regain access to the house inside of a gated community they had been locked out of. Shortly thereafter, the duo was arrested after a haphazard shootout and brought to justice. Perry was sentenced to death, Burkett to life in prison. With Perry’s execution right around the corner, filmmaker Werner Herzog journeyed to the maximum security prison in Huntsville, Texas in order to interview the culprits, get the details of the case, and have a look at the concept of the death penalty.
Perhaps the preeminent voice in documentary filmmaking, Herzog has spent the majority of his illustrious career crafting his approach and that shines through once again here. What I love about Herzog’s documentaries is that there’s never any question as to how he feels about his subject matter and yet you never feel as if he’s forcing it down his throat. At the outset of Into the Abyss he states (off-camera) that he is against the death penalty and at times you can tell that his film is sliding toward his side of the argument. A very compelling portion of the film involves Herzog’s discussions with a man who spent his entire career strapping the condemned to a gurney until a series of events led him to jump to the other side of the argument. Still, however, Herzog allows the audience to judge for themselves, choosing to let the camera roll while laying out the facts. My impression is that Herzog would like to start a dialogue concerning the matter rather than shame proponents of the death penalty into submission.
At the same time, Into the Abyss pulls no punches in its portrayal of both Perry and Burkett. While both profess their innocence, Herzog quietly points out the holes in their respective stories and makes it clear that there is virtually no evidence to support their claims. These two were morons with a history of bad and violent behavior who finally escalated their actions. Perhaps their greatest mistake was being so stupid as to believe they could get away with their crimes when clearly neither one of them had the mental capacity to outsmart a brain damaged dog, let alone a team of police detectives. The film uses splices of the videos investigators shot at the crime scene and accentuates the footage with interviews with the detective in charge of the case and the family members of the victims. It is a dark light that is shed on Perry and Burkett and Herzog makes no attempt to turn them into the martyrs they would have you believe they are.
The issue I had with Into the Abyss is that it simultaneously tries to cover too much ground and doesn’t reach quite far enough. Herzog takes the time to highlight a fairly extensive interview with Burkett’s father, himself in prison, in an effort to illuminate Burkett’s difficult childhood but then doesn’t do anything with this information. It seems as if the film goes halfway toward building a bit of sympathy for at least Burkett, if not Perry, and then abandons the idea. There are also a handful of interviews that don’t seem to serve much of a purpose. At the same time, because of the nature of how Herzog shot the film, his “turn on the cameras and see what happens” style, there are times when Into the Abyss seems a bit purposeless. There’s no great statement made and again, while I appreciate that he didn’t take to the heavy-handed preaching tactic used too often in these documentaries, this leaves the film devoid of a lasting impression. It’s a good film and one that is certainly worth watching if for no other reason than the conversation it could lead to but it lacks the punch that I would have expected it to display.