Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Herzog's death-row documentary hits hard

Sadness sometimes grows in the murky shadows of American life, a bone-deep sorrow in which the smallest (and perhaps meanest) of impulses builds toward catastrophe. When these impulses find their fullest expression, the results often feel random and senseless. We're talking about crimes born of stupidity, recklessness, envy and guns, and you feel the bleak tug of all these things in almost every frame of Werner Herzog's troubling new documentary, Into the Abyss.

When I first read about Into the Abyss, I was put off. Herzog had interviewed a death row inmate for what easily could have become an anti-capital punishment diatribe. I'll register my vote against capital punishment, but I had little desire to sit through what promised to be a dreary exercise of preaching to the already converted.

Boy, was I wrong.

Into the Abyss is one of the year's most disturbing films, a documentary that peels the lid off a Texas community where trouble seems to grow like weeds. I'm usually put off by documentaries in which we hear the interviewer asking questions, but in this case, Herzog's questions (and comments) become an essential part of the movie's fabric. He can be sensitive or insistent, and he treats everyone with respect.

To make the film, Herzog conducted interviews with prisoners, family members of victims, a prison guard who presided at executions and a chaplain who still plies his trade in the bland but nonetheless grisly confines of Texas' execution chambers.

These disparate characters find themselves in the same movie because of a 2001 crime in which Sandra Stotler, her son Adam and Adam's friend Jeremy Richardson were murdered. Michael Perry and Jason Burkett were convicted of the crime: Perry received a death sentence; Burkett is serving a life term. All of this took place in Texas, where not much needs to be said about the commitment to execution.

The murders evidently were motivated by Perry and Burkett's desire to drive a red Camero that belonged to Stotler, and which now sits in a police impound yard. At one point, a tree grew through the abandoned car's floorboards. You look at that car, and you can't help but ask yourself, "So much pain, and for this?"

In Into the Abyss death feels inescapable, perhaps because Herzog interviewed Perry eight days before his scheduled execution. Like many inmates, Perry says he has found comfort in religion, but the inexorable approach of his execution infuses the film with tension.

Moments of pure heartbreak punctuate Herzog's film: We listen to the self-accusatory testimony of Burkett's father, a man who has spent most of his life behind bars. He talks about the ways in which he failed his son. Stotler's daughter discusses the torments she has endured since the murder of her mother and brother; and a Texas prison guard talks about finally reaching a point at which he no longer could participate in executions, even if it meant sacrificing his pension.

Herzog makes his position on capital punishment clear, but beats no drums of outrage. And he's certainly not trying to get either Perry or Burkett of the hook. He's just following the story where it takes him, working his way through a pain-laden narrative that springs from deeds that can't be undone.

Into the Abyss isn't just a film about a terrible crime and its dreadful punishment: It's a film about the awful and aching complexities of lives that may have been shattered beyond repair. Is there anything hopeful to be found in all of this? Not much. In the world of this film, killing and its impact can't be shaken.

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