LITTLE ROCK There are moments of unlikely humor - and at least one of director Werner Herzog’s trademarked “ecstatic truth” - in the otherwise depressing documentary Into the Abyss, a meditation on killing that concentrates on the fallout from one particular crime, a triple homicide that occurred in Conroe, Texas, in October 2001 because two teenagers wanted a 1997 cherry-red Camaro convertible that belonged to the mother of an acquaintance.
After an insanely bungled crime, which involved the killers invading a house in a gated subdivision, shotgunning a 50-year old woman to death and dumping her body in a nearby lake only to discover they hadn’t the means to get back into the gated community (an error which led them to kill the woman’s 16-year-old son and an 18-year-old friend), Michael Perry and Jason Burkett showed up at a bar with the woman’s Camaro and her son’s Isuzu Rodeo, telling other patrons they’d just won the lottery.
A week later, Perry and Burkett were arrested after a traffic stop turned into a shootout with police. Perry was injured, and while in an ambulance heading to the hospital confessed to the murders. He later recanted, but a jury didn’t buy his story. He maintained his innocence up until his execution in July 2010.
Burkett was convicted in a separate trial and sentenced to life in prison. He will be eligible for parole in 2041.
Perry became something of a cause celebre in prison, with his goofily boyish looks no doubt contributing to his popularity on Facebook. When Herzog interviewed him for the documentary, he was 28 years old, with just eight days to live. He smiles for the camera, but seems taken aback when Herzog seems uninterested in his claims of innocence and Christian salvation.
“When I talk to you, it does not necessarily mean that I have to like you,” the German director tells him in his familiar accent. “But I respect you and you are a human being, and I think human beings should not be executed as simply as that.”
That statement comprises the entirety of the argument against capital punishment the film makes. Though thousands evidently did believe in Perry’s actual innocence, Herzog seems convinced by the “mountains of evidence” the prosecutor says implicate Perry and Burkett. He’s simply pro-life - though obviously sympathetic to those left behind.
The daughter and sister of two of the victims explains how her life has “shut down.”
“When your whole family is ripped from you, you’re kind of like, ‘What’s the point of living anymore?’” she says. “Our lives are very empty.”
But what may be worse than lethal injection is the grim existence faced by Burkett, who was spared by the jury after his father, Delbert, made a plea for his son’s life. “He had trash for a father,” Delbert, who’s serving his own 40-year-sentence, tells Herzog. Another son is also in prison - the father and sons can celebrate holidays together behind bars.
Herzog is remarkably restrained in the film, never appearing on camera except as a reflection (a ghost) in the glass through which he speaks to the incarcerated. And he avoids reaching for elaborate (and baffling) metaphors like the albino alligators at the end of Cave of Forgotten Dreams. He simply means to show us things as they are - and in this corner of Texas, just north of Houston, things are undeniably violent. And mean.
Into the Abyss 87 Cast: Documentary, featuring Michael Perry, Jason Burkett, Werner Herzog Director: Werner Herzog Rating: PG-13, for thematic material and disturbing issues Running time: 107 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 35 on 12/09/2011
Print Headline: Into the Abyss