DVD Movie Review: Into the Abyss (2011)

into-the-abyss-movie-image-02A tale of death, a tale of life

“Some people just don’t deserve to live,” utters the daughter and sister of a murdered mother and brother. Thus, legendary German film maker Werner Herzog takes his camera and idiosyncratic style to the United States of America to explore capital punishment and death row with Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life (2011).

Focusing on three capital murders in Texas in 2001, bizarre and unusual interviewees are encountered, from a pastor regaling an encounter with a squirrel, the artificial insemination of a prison wife “groupie” and a young man on death row managing to keep an ultimately forlorn smile on his face throughout the entire film’s duration.

A camera shot eerily advancing down the hallway between the cells and walls leading to the chamber of death provides one of the most Herzogian moments in the film. Empty cells and tables replete with bibles, and thus the presence of God (one of many religious overtones), are just a precursor to the room where death will take place. The haunting music and sight of the gurney itself makes this small but pivotal moment even more poignant when we are introduced to the person who will be killed there.

Death row inmate Michael Perry was sentenced at the age of 18 for the capital murders of Sandra Stotler, her son Adam and his friend Jeremy Richardson, merely to acquire her red Camero car. He is eight days away from death. Still convinced of his innocence, despite highly probative evidence to the contrary, he believes that as a Christian a right will be wronged and he is either “going home or home”.

Herzog lays his cards out from the offset, informing Perry that he does not believe in the death penalty and expresses his sympathy. Yet from here on in Werner does little to actively construct an argument for his own point of view. He is very fair to all sides.

A frustration to some, maybe, but Herzog will do things his way – this is not a Michael Moore film. We are presented with a sequence showing the very shocking and senseless nature of the crimes committed by Perry and his cohort Jason Burkett. Real crime scene footage of blood stains. The lifeless legs of a victim. Empty shot-gun cartridges. Detailed analysis by a local cop who informs us of the very specific nature of the heinous crimes committed. It is hard to not to feel the most utmost sympathy towards the victims and their families.

The impact on the victims families is important. Stotler’s daughter Lisa conveys the emptiness of her life losing her family. Jeremy Richardson’s brother is almost inconsolable over the death of his best friend, the “golden child”. Herzog is a master at inducing emotional responses from people by merely talking to them.

It’s his simple but curious follow-up questions that do the damage. Keeping the camera rolling when the talking is done gets the best emotional responses. Tearful eyes and discomfort conveys plenty.

Burkett was spared the death sentence due to an emotional plea from his father at his trial. Also a long-term prison detainee, his assertion that he was a terrible father was enough to convince two members of a jury to save his son’s life.

Killing another person wouldn’t correct what happened or bring the victims back. We see the tale of death, tale of life in action. The fine line between a man who died and a man who did not. Burkett went on to marry a member of his defence team and is expecting his first child (“contraband” smuggled out of prison to allow this provides one of the film’s most amusing and uplifting moments). Is the process therefore merely arbitrary as to who lives and dies?

As for the actual protocol of death, Reverend Richard Lopez, the death house chaplain, portrays the proceedings as very godly. This is Texas, after all.

It’s as if his role is to act on God’s behalf to give his blessing and make sure God’s work is done. His emotion at being unable to stop the process, although he wishes he could, is captured in one of Herzog’s frequent trademark lingering camera shots which dwell on the characters face after the talking has been done. His squirrel to human being analogy is truly bizarre. Herzog himself says he found the preacher to be phony, like something from a television commercial.

This contrasts sharply with Fred Allen, the former death house captain and state executioner. The man with life and liberty in his hands. For him, the tiresome stench of 125 deaths forced him to relinquish his duty. Recalling the story of Texas’ first execution of a woman since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976 (Karla Faye Tucker) and how it changed him, is utterly moving.Witnessing the emotion of a man’s defences breaking down palpably is as damning evidence against the death penalty as could have been sought. It is easy to seek death. It is harder to perpetrate it.

The film does meander. However, a Herzog ramble is always a valuable exercise. For a centered view, it provides compelling viewing. It is not a polemical view of the death penalty. It will most likely not change America’s stance on capital punishment like Krzysztof Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Killing (1988) did in Poland, but as an exploration of the human spirit a better film will be hard to find.Were this a boxing contest, the pro death-penalty lobby lands significant punches. But for some the anti will have landed the significant blow. Make up your own mind. But with 100,000 British citizens signing a petition for capital punishment to be reinstated, the right-wing tabloids banging the drum and the legal obligation for it to be debated in Parliament, it is a timely reminder of the impact it has on all its protagonists.

107 mins.

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