ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AT FILMORIA
Filmmaker and shoe eater Werner Herzog often makes strange and uncomfortable cinema, and Into The Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life is no exception. The film examines the concepts of life and death through the lens of a death row inmate, the victims’ families and people of Conroe, Texas where a vicious triple murder took place in 2001.
At the time the film was made, Michael Perry was on Texas’s death row awaiting execution for the murder of Sandra, her son Adam and family friend Jeremy Richardson. Perry’s accomplice, Jason Burkett, is serving 40 years in prison for his part in the crime. Herzog interviews these men, Burkett’s father, towns people and police, and weaves this material together to allow the audience to gain a complete picture of what happened, but this is not just a film about a man on death row. Herzog examines the idea of the death penalty through talking with a former death house captain, Fred Allen, and directly asking Lisa Stotler-Balloun – Sandra’s daughter – whether life in prison would have been an adequate punishment for Perry.
While watching the film it is sometimes hard to understand the filmmaker’s stance on the matter, but as Into the Abyss progresses it becomes clear that while Herzog deplores the violent crime that was committed, he also believes that the death penalty is not a solution.
The interviews range from the heartbreaking to the weird; those who are left behind are devastated by the loss of their family, but in an odd twist Jason Burkett has met and married a woman named Melyssa while in prison and, even though the two have never been allowed to do more than hug, through some clever smuggling she has become pregnant.
Into the Abyss could easily be a mawkish, macabre examination of violent murder but, even though he uses crime scene footage in the film, Herzog steers clear of this territory. What emerges instead is an examination of the human condition. Selfishness, greed, sorrow and love flow through the film as the people affected by Perry and Burkett’s actions – themselves included – open up to Herzog and lay themselves bare. Herzog is a fantastic listener and his careful questions – delivered in his well-known Bavarian accent – are gentle but probing and he gets the absolute best from the people he talks with, although Michael Perry appeared surprised and disappointed when he realised that Herzog was not there to champion his innocence.
Herzog uncovers layers of dysfunction and neglect, which made Burkett and Perry’s crime possible. Conroe feels like a broken town bereft of hope and light; drug abuse, crime and murder run rampant and as this is revealed, a level of understanding begins to dawn. The film feels messy in places, as though the people are not entirely sure of why they are being interviewed, and Herzog’s own opinion colours the film to some degree. There are moments when the message of the film appears confused; is this an examination of an innocent man or is it a comment on the death penalty? In the end it is neither, it is just a presentation of facts, although time and editing may have changed these slightly. But then, Herzog films are never straight forward, they twist and turn and leave the audience thinking.
The audience never learns a satisfactory answer to why the crime was committed, but this is not what Into the Abyss is about. The film looks and the connections made through death, but reminds audiences that there is always hope. People who deal with death every day are still affected by it, and the woman who lost her mother and brother so soon after the death of her father and eldest brother still finds room in her heart for a level of forgiveness. Perry should not have been killed, she says, but spent life in prison. That death should not beget death is a surprising stance from someone who has lost so much, but an encouraging one.
Into the Abyss is a fascinating and heartbreaking piece of work. The film serves to remind us of the thin line between life and death, but somehow manages to end with a message of hope.