As of 7th March 2012, 1,231 individuals have been executed in the state of Texas. Werner Herzogâ€™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 AbyssÂ is not an issue film, nor a political film. Rather, he says itâ€™s about a senseless crime and its effect on all the people involved. The directorâ€™s personal view is that heâ€™s against lethal injection, and yet he is compassionate towards the killer. â€śDestiny has dealt you a bad deck of cards which does not exonerate you,â€ť he tells Perry, â€śand which does not necessarily mean that I have to like you.â€ť
The directorâ€™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. Thereâ€™s heartbreaking testimony from the woman who canâ€™t have a phone in the house in case it brings her bad news (itâ€™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 whoâ€™s so perky and upbeat that sheâ€™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. Heâ€™s a religious leader just doing his job â€“ even if it is a gruesome one â€“ heâ€™s very matter-of-fact and shows little emotion. But Herzogâ€™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, itâ€™s only the police crime scene video that shows a discerning eye. Whether itâ€™s zooming in on blood spatter or focusing on the domestic scene, brutally interrupted with lingering shots of half-baked cookies. Otherwise, itâ€™s straight-to-camera shots, with gentle quizzing from an off-screen Herzog that may be simple but are delivered with devastating effect.
Itâ€™s unlikely that this film will change your mind about the death penalty, but that was never Herzogâ€™s intention. Whatever you feel about officially sanctioned state killing,Â Herzogâ€™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.
Watch the trailer of Into the Abyss here