Title: Into the Abyss
Director: Werner Herzog
Starring: Werner Herzog (narrator), Jason Burkett, Michael Perry, Jeremy Richardson, Adam Stotler, Sandra Stotler, Kristen Willis
Werner Herzog comes in with a documentary about death row; specifically focusing on a triple homicide that occurred in Conroe, Texas back in 2001. The two perpetrators, Jason Burkett and Michael Perry, were found guilty yet only one of them – Michael Perry – was sentenced to the state’s death penalty. Herzog tracks the boys down and has in-depth discussions with both of the convicted twenty-something’s at their current detainment centers in Texas.
Initially, the 107 documentary begins with Herzog first meeting with Michael as he probes what is going through his mind just days before he is to be executed. Also being articulated, is how and why the heinous crime went down; as the actual – and unedited – crime scene footage is tastefully showcased all while Herzog physically visits the depicted crime area with a local Sheriff. From there, Herzog then speaks with the victim’s family members and candidly examines their reactions today, along with asking them to recall what went through their mind during the time period of receiving the tragic news and the forthcoming trial proceedings.
While the case itself is, for a lack of a better term, standard, the riveting aspect of this piece is Herzog’s interview style. It comes off very simplistic, yet he never lets anyone off the hook or dodge his questions. If he doesn’t receive a thorough answer, he respectfully presses on to attain a reaction on what is still a sensitive and painful topic for the relatives of the deceased. He also delves into the background of the two assailants to give the audience a better of understanding on how a tragedy like this even occurs in our society. Chats with the in-and-out of jail father of one of the convicted also sheds light to the point where it can almost make you feel sympathetic to their (Perry & Burkett) current situation.
There’s also an underlying theme of the pros and cons (pardon the pun) of the death row system. Herzog speaks with officials who manage the execution houses as they walk him through the process of what happens (last meal, shower, final requests, etc.). Since one was given the death penalty and the other received just a life sentence; the question of what purpose the death penalty serves subtly comes into the forefront. Herzog not only wants to give the viewer an understanding of this story, but he also asks that they be a jury to this court process that only a few states enforce. Should we buy into “an eye for an eye?” Or can we rise above to another solution from a humane perspective?
What keeps this study uniform – and is just a nice touch worth mentioning – is a classy musical score (more like tones) that eases you through the depressing material. The mechanics are fluid and even the stereotypical lingering shots that conclude a discussion point can say something despite the lack of words are being exchanged.
Overall, Into the Abyss is quietly fascinating. Writer/director Werner Herzog takes a provocative and polarizing subject and pulls the curtain back giving a variety of perspectives the audience can discuss. The only knock on this documentary is whether or not Herzog is trying to influence the viewer to choose a side. If he was, it’s tough to tell what he’s throwing his weight towards. Either way, he provides all the facts and pieces together a coherent presentation that will spark a debate within your own mind. In other words, it’s solid cinematic journalism.
By Joe Belcastro