Legendary director Werner Herzog clearly states his personal opposition to the death penalty in at least two of the interviews he conducted as part of his moving, deeply felt documentary on the aftermath of a brutal triple murder in Texas. All the same, “Into the Abyss” is too deliberately idiosyncratic to be tagged as a “message movie.”
What “Into the Abyss” does is direct the viewer to confront capital punishment not in ideological terms, but as a human institution with all the peculiarities, inconsistencies and hypocrisies that attend human institutions.
If “Into the Abyss” were an advocacy movie, the 2001 triple murder that placed documentary subjects Michael Perry on death row and Jason Burkett in prison for life would make an interesting test case.
There isn’t much room to doubt their guilt in the pointless killing spree in 2001 — originally cooked up to steal a Camaro from the garage of the first victim, Sandra Stotler. The two 19-year-olds did not do much to cover their tracks: They bragged about the crime, gave friends joy rides in stolen vehicles and eventually confessed to police.
While Perry made claims of innocence from death row, Mr. Herzog does not dignify these with any real attention, and notes that both men included details in their confessions that only those responsible would have known. The two elected to be tried separately, and this appears to be the only reason Perry was sentenced to die and Burkett was sentenced to prison.
In the film’s most moving section, Burkett’s father, Delbert Burkett, discusses the testimony he gave at his son’s sentencing hearing. The elder Burkett, himself a serial felon serving a 40-year prison sentence, told the jury he was to blame for his son’s crime, and begged them to spare his life. He comes across as the very embodiment of regret — regret for his own past, and for the legacy he passed to his children.
By contrast, Perry lacked a convincing advocate at trial, and he appears to be dangerously unhinged and quite possibly psychopathic. In his appearance, filmed eight days before his execution, the jangly, boyish-looking convict seems disconnected from reality and completely lacking in remorse. It’s not hard to imagine a Texas jury sentencing him to death.
“Into the Abyss” is drawn away from the details of the crime, and even from the mechanics of the death penalty, into the details of the lives of the perpetrators and the victims.
Peter Zeitlinger’s cinematography is direct and intense, with the camera lingering on the faces of the subjects like a penetrating gaze in search of an emotional response. The movie doesn’t just capture these emotions, but generates a true connection with the depths of the despair felt by Lisa Stotler Balloun, whose mother and brother were murdered, and by the sense of almost irredeemable failure of Delbert Burkett.
Mr. Herzog has managed to make a film that speaks for the victims of crime, despite his own opposition to the ultimate punishment.
TITLE: “Into the Abyss”
CREDITS: Directed by Werner Herzog
RATING: PG-13 for profanity, images of violence
RUNNING TIME: 107 minutes