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Film review: Into the Abyss

  Thursday 8th March 2012

As of 7th March 2012, 1,231 individuals have been executed in the state of Texas. Werner Herzog’s documentary takes a personal, off-beat look at the story of two men convicted of a triple homicide. Michael Perry received a death sentence for the crime, and Jason Burkett received a life sentence.

Capital punishment is one of the most emotive subjects and yet Herzog has said that Into the Abyss is not an issue film, nor a political film. Rather, he says it’s about a senseless crime and its effect on all the people involved. The director’s personal view is that he’s against lethal injection, and yet he is compassionate towards the killer. “Destiny has dealt you a bad deck of cards which does not exonerate you,” he tells Perry, “and which does not necessarily mean that I have to like you.”

Michael Perry was executed for gunning down Sandra Stotler in Texas, North America’s most active death penalty state.

The director’s softly spoken questions to the condemned man, family and friends in this riveting tale is a searching inquiry into the heart of the matter, looking at the personal stories and aftermath of what happens when someone has died at the hands of another person. There’s heartbreaking testimony from the woman who can’t have a phone in the house in case it brings her bad news (it’s her mother and brother who were killed by Perry).

The film opens with the Reverend Richard Lopez who looks after inmates on death row in a Texas prison. He has very sad, blood-shot eyes. Practically everyone in the film has wounded eyes, except the wife of Jason Burkett who’s so perky and upbeat that she’s in some ways more unnerving than the killers.

The pastor reveals that he holds on to the ankle of the person given a lethal injection until the last breath had left their body. He’s a religious leader just doing his job – even if it is a gruesome one – he’s very matter-of-fact and shows little emotion. But Herzog’s probing questions bring out unexpected insights. Lopez talks about his love of playing golf and a time when he nearly ran over a squirrel and killed it. He sheds tears and his lip trembles when he thinks about saving the life of a rodent but not being able to save the life of a human being.

Our first sight of the killer Michael Perry gives us a jolt. He looks so young, with a goofy grin, pasty complexion and a fringe more suited to a ten-year old. He has an innocence that would put a choir boy to shame. Could he really be the person who gunned down a woman and two young men all for the sake of a flashy red car?

My feelings towards him changed during the course of the film. At the beginning, I was almost sorry for him. However, after hearing and seeing evidence that he was indeed guilty of horrific crimes, I slowly felt the anger and horror rising within me, especially when Perry offers no remorse for his crimes.

This is by no means an arty film. In fact, it’s only the police crime scene video that shows a discerning eye. Whether it’s zooming in on blood spatter or focusing on the domestic scene, brutally interrupted with lingering shots of half-baked cookies. Otherwise, it’s straight-to-camera shots, with gentle quizzing from an off-screen Herzog that may be simple but are delivered with devastating effect.

It’s unlikely that this film will change your mind about the death penalty, but that was never Herzog’s intention. Whatever you feel about officially sanctioned state killing, Herzog’s documentary shows the tragic and often pointless waste of life, with its ensuing emotional trauma for all concerned.

Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life is on general release from 30th March.

Verdict: •••

Fiona Keating

Watch the trailer of Into the Abyss here

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