Mark Reviews Movies

Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Werner Herzog

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material and some disturbing images)

Running Time: 1:47

Release Date: 11/11/11 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 10, 2011

Werner Herzog has no qualms in stating upfront his opposition to capital punishment, though the director's early statement of his opinion in Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life is the only evidence on display that he feels that way. It flies in the face of those who absent-mindedly say that subjectivity has no place in the documentary format.

The film deals very little with the death row inmate in question, one Michael Perry, who was convicted of a senseless triple homicide in the small town of Conroe, Texas. At the time of filming, Perry is awaiting his execution (It's carried out off-screen near the end of the film). In fact, Herzog is quite blunt when he first meets Perry—the two sitting opposite of each other with thick glass and the camera in between them. "I respect you as a human being, but that doesn't mean I have to like you," he tells the inmate. It's a rational statement, too—one that sympathizes with the man's situation but refuses to sympathize with the man himself.

Herzog instead spends most of his time with the victims and their families (The film is dedicated to them and, in general, all victims of violent crime and their families), using police video of the crime scenes to give a vague impression of the horrific murders without sensationalizing them. One of the police officers who was on the scene in the late 1990s gives a tour of the spots were three people were killed. One of those locations is now a home for another family in town; the officer points to the spot—now a newly installed concrete walkway—where the body was discovered.

We do forget, don't we?

It only makes sense, then, that Herzog talks with those who will never forget. Their lives continue, though Lisa Stotler-Balloun, whose mother and brother were murdered by Perry and his accomplice Jason Burkett (who received a life sentence and will be a much older man before his time is served), details how it took years before she could even leave the house. She refused to have a phone in her house during that time, as well. Herzog, not one for holding back on even the most intrusive questions, pushes her a bit more on the subject of the telephone. She simply did not want any more bad news coming into her home.

What's fascinating about the film is the dichotomy between the director's stated position on the death penalty and the film's focus on the devastation wrought by these two men, who were reckless teenagers at the time. They dumped the mother's body in a nearby lake. They brought the two young men they killed later into the woods under the false pretense of a wounded acquaintance and executed them—one, somehow figuring out the plan, in the process of fleeing for his life. Herzog does not comment on these events; he simply plays the crime scene footage and lets the officer document the cold, hard facts of the case—from Perry and Burkett's plans to steal a car to a shootout between the two and police at local store. Each, predictably, blames the other for the actual killing.

The impression is that Herzog is almost apologetic for his belief that Perry should be allowed to live. Even when he offers Stotler-Balloun the alternative of a life sentence without parole instead of the death penalty (An option she says is a viable punishment), he does not question her declaration that Perry's execution will give her a sense of justice, closure, satisfaction. If one is to respect Perry as a human being, one must show at least equal consideration of the wishes of the survivors—no matter how much one might disagree with them.

There are others left behind in the capital punishment issue, and though Perry essentially has no family (at least that we meet or about whom he talks), Herzog also interviews Burkett's father, who is also in jail (The brother of the third victim and at least one other resident of Conroe to whom Herzog speaks have also been in prison). His story is one of regret of being in prison and not being there for his son as the boy was growing up, and his words raise many unasked questions about the life-long events that led Perry and Burkett to murder.

Finally, Herzog talks to a former guard at the "Death House" of Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville. After participating in over 125 executions during his tenure, he quit and is still haunted by the face of a female inmate. With a cool and professional tone, he details the process of preparing a prisoner for death, and Herzog's camera makes the short walk from the final cell to the lethal injection room.

Herzog might have an opinion, but he does not take a side. One of the greater strengths of Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life is that it refuses to make an argument. Instead, the film acts as a witness, surveying a culture of easy choices that inevitably lead to death.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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