When I first saw the trailer for Into the Abyss I thought briefly and initially that Herzog would be exploring the details of the case as an injustice might have been carried out. The initial circumstances seemed right, murder case in Texas, someone on Death Row, perhaps Herzog would be doing his own version of friend Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line, which told the story of the wrongly convicted Randall Dale Adams. I was quickly embarrassed when I started to watch the opening frames of Into the Abyss, because it is hardly about a true crime investigation at all and looks at the broader personal implications of murder and executions in general.
The focus of this exploration is a 2001 triple murder where two Texas teenagers in Michael Perry and Jason Burkett killed Sandra Stotler, a widowed mother, for a red Camaro she owned. Perry and Burkett also killed Sandra's son Adam and Adam's friend Jeremy Richardson in order to gain entry to the gated community where the Stotlers lived. Perry and Burkett were captured days after a shootout with police (during which an officer was hit with the car the teens fled in, which was Adam's car that they had taken from him) and the two were tried and convicted of the crimes. Perry was sentenced to death, and the interviews for the film were conducted eight days before he was scheduled to be executed, and at the same time they were done ten days after Perry's father had died from a heart attack. Burkett was sentenced to life in prison, with a seemingly certain death row sentence curbed by his father's tearful plea for mercy to the jury. Burkett's father is also in jail at the time, and his words seemed to have changed the minds of two people in the jury, with those two votes sparing his son's life.
Herzog's knack for filming unique subjects for television and feature-length documentary over the years has been amazing. I first discovered his documentaries after his films, and one of the first I saw was Little Dieter Needs to Fly, which he later made into the dramatic Rescue Dawn. In this film, we start with the interview of a preacher who has been with many inmates as they are being executed. Set against a county cemetery where dozens of executed inmates have been laid to rest, the conflict this preacher seems to hold is one that one cannot help but circle back to through the film on the parties that fall on either side of the fence on the capital punishment debate.
Starting with the one mentioned earlier, Burkett and his father provide a stark contrast to Perry's mix of optimism (inspired in part due to his newfound Christianity) and reticence of admission. And to be fair, Burkett blames Perry for doing the murders, and the forensic evidence would seem to back this assertion, but there is a larger degree of remorse in being involved with the situation to begin with. But Burkett's remorse is dwarfed by his father, who was in jail at the time of the murders and was in jail a decade later when Herzog visited him for interviews on the subject. Incarcerated for the fourth time in his life (this one a 40-year term), the elder Burkett realizes that he is likely not coming out of prison again unless it is for a burial. He recounts moments in his life where he could have turned things around, and talks about being handcuffed to Jason as the two went to jail, and talks of being a failure as a father. It is compelling stuff to watch.
Even more compelling are the interviews with the family members of the victims. In Lisa Stotler Balloun (Sandra's daughter and Adam's sister), we relive the heart wrenching experiences of her learning about the killings of her mother and brother on separate occurrences. Later we find out just how much of her family she has lost over a compacted timeframe past Sandra and Adam, and her decision to get rid of telephones in her house. We witness Charles Richardson (Jeremy's brother) as he discusses the incarceration of his father and the death of his sister shortly before Jeremy was killed. He is more emotional about his losses than Lisa is to a degree, but the striking thing about both families is that they do not harbor a visceral feeling of hatred or reprisal towards Perry and Burkett, at least barely on camera anyway. They are too busy moving on (as Lisa appears to have done to a degree) or still apparently lost (as Charles appears to be), almost a decade after the killings.
There are other interviewees that help provide additional insight either to the case or to the process itself. An interview with Fred Allen (a prison guard akin to the Tom Hanks character in The Green Mile) discusses the process of taking prisoners along the short walk from the cell to the execution room, and recounts his reasons for leaving the position after handling more than 125 executions as being emotionally exhausted from them. Herzog spends ample time on both the crime and the process for punishment, and does so impartially.
On second thought, maybe impartially might not be the correct word. Additionally, perhaps the urge to add to the discussion about whatever merits the death penalty has is only part of the discussion. While Stotler Balloun does feel some closure of sorts, it has not brought her family back, and she even was quoted as saying Perry's execution date was a 'bad day' for all involved. With the time spent on both sides of the spectrum, Herzog looks at the futility of it all, both the urge to kill for something as superficial as a nice car and the desire to kill those responsible for the crimes, and the larger question of when the madness will ever stop is the more powerful one that remains unanswered.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Into the Abyss is presented in an AVC-encoded 1.78:1 widescreen transfer and the results look as good as can be expected. The film balances the static interview shots with handheld cameras, and includes crime scene film which was shot in full frame. The disc juggles these various methods and sources capably and even on the documentary, one can glean a certain degree of background image detail and clarity, which was a minor surprise for me. It isn't the best looking Blu-ray around, but as far as documentaries go, it does the work in fine fashion.
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 for the feature with the result being straightforward sonic material. Dialogue is well-balanced in the center channel and requires little adjustment. Directional effects and channel panning are non-existent and the soundstage does not do anything to provide the listener an immersive experience. However, the disc has no real business putting an immersive experience onto a documentary film. It is supposed to carry the interviews strongly and accurately, and does so without complaint.
The only thing here is a trailer, which is a shame considering I was curious to see how Herzog arrived at this case to focus on and some additional background on the interview subjects.
Between Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Into the Abyss, Werner Herzog made two of the best documentaries of 2011 and arguably two of the best films of 2011 period, and on vastly different subjects. Despite the variety, Herzog handles each subject with the same sense of fascination and intrigue that makes his documentaries great. Into the Abyss is a must-watch film, but the lack of supplements keeps it from being a keeper.