In 2001, Texas teenagers Jason Burkett and Michael Perry were arrested after engaging in a shootout with police officers. They were charged with the murder of three people: Sandra Stotler, a mother, her sixteen-year-old-son Adam, and his friend Jeremy Richardson. The only motive for their violent crime was that they wanted the older woman's red Camaro. They shot her in her garage to get her keys, and killed her child--their friend--to get the remote control to open the gate back into the family's protected community.
Internationally acclaimed director Werner Herzog (Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans) begins his documentary Into the Abyss ten years later, a mere eight days before Michael Perry is scheduled to be put to death. He visits the condemned man in prison, finding a smiling manchild who comforts himself with religious homilies. The director candidly tells the killer--who still maintains his innocence--that he doesn't much like him, but he respects his humanity and his story. Indeed, Herzog respects all the participants and approaches them honestly. His intent is to get to the heart of the matter and try to find out why three innocent people are dead and what the resulting punishment will mean for those they left behind.
Jason Burkett is in a separate prison from Perry. He is serving a life sentence, having avoided the death penalty by two jury votes. The disparity between the two outcomes is a sticky point in the narrative. Why one will live and why the other will die is as hard to explain as why blood was shed over something as unimportant as an automobile. Herzog probes the crime, talking to an investigating officer and surveying crime scene footage. He talks to Sandra's daughter and Jeremy's brother about how these murders have affected them, and he also interviews Jason Burkett's dad, who himself is in prison and has been most of Jason's life. He testified to Jason's hardships, and most likely is responsible for swaying those two jury votes. Of all those incarcerated, he is the one who expresses the most honest regret: as far as he is concerned, his son and his sidekick got caught up in a cycle of violence neither had much control over. One of the most poignant scenes in the movie is when Herzog asks the elder Burkett to back-up and decide where it all went wrong. It doesn't take long for the old man to find an answer.
Into the Abyss is a political film, but is not one burdened by politics. This is not a Red State/Blue State debate, and Herzog would no sooner condescend to such artificial divides than he would his interview subjects. (In talking to one of Burkett's other victims, the German filmmaker gives the blue-collar man a genuine pep talk upon learning that he has since learned to read; it's about as genuine a meeting of disparate peoples as you're going to find.) The film takes in both religious and legal points of view, and Herzog's feeling on the subject of capital punishment is clear, but he never outlines a particular argument. In fact, the most illuminating perspective comes from Adam Stotler's sister. She watched Perry's lethal injection, and it brings her a strange closure and also a clear-eyed view of death row. On the flipside, Jason Burkett's new wife, a Nebraskan woman who wrote to him in jail and eventually tied her destiny to his, is almost totally blind to reality. Listening to her explain what she perceives to be the difference between herself and the death row groupies who write to Scott Peterson is downright disturbing.
It would have been easy to sensationalize this story or linger on the gory details, but Herzog is careful to do neither. Into the Abyss is more of a quiet tribute, meditating on the issues and providing a space for the participants to share and explore their own feelings. Though the director's familiar voice regularly intrudes into the conversation, he does so with empathy and curiosity, though not entirely without some of his own odd observations. Certain peculiarities naturally attract the filmmaker--the story of the squirrels, the prison guard's emergence of self, etc.--ensuring that Herzog's stamp is still on the picture, but it's not nearly as pervasive as in some of his other documentaries. Smartly, rather than having constant narration as he did in Grizzly Man or Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog opts to use silent captions for exposition. Had he been more of a character in the piece, Into the Abyss would have gone a whole other way.
I am not sure Into the Abyss will change anyone's mind about capital punishment; then again, I don't believe that was the intention. Its goal seems more likely to be to lay out the material as simply as possible and in such a way that will lead viewers to think about the situation in their own way and on their own terms. It's a complex scenario that inspires complex reactions. I know I am wrestling with my own thoughts about what went on. There is a great difference between philosophical belief about an abstract concept and one's emotional response to an actual occurrence. Ever the master storyteller, Werner Herzog knows the unvarnished reality will have far more effect than any well-groomed speech ever could. A silent fade resonates far more loudly than the ringing of a bell or the bang of a gun.