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“This film doesn’t really have much to do with death row,” Werner Herzog clarified during the Q & A that followed the Toronto premiere of “Into the Abyss.” The distinction is an important one since at first glance, the filmmaker’s latest documentary appears as it will join the ever growing stack of films about the subject, that as well-intentioned and well-made as they can be, have suffered from fatigue in recent years. This being Herzog, it can’t possibly cover the same ground, but even as his editor Joe Bini noted during the same Q & A, “Into the Abyss” feels different for the director, whose last nonfiction films dealt with man’s interactions with natural wonder.
In “Into the Abyss,” there’s wonder, but it’s of the quizzical variety as Herzog sees the death penalty as the final senseless act in a series of them in the case of two teenage boys who murdered a woman living in a gated community in Conroe, Texas with plans to steal her Camaro and wound up killing two others while trying to make their escape. With crime scene video and the convincing testimony of a local lieutenant, there’s little doubt that Michael Perry and Jason Burkett were responsible for the death of Sandra Stottler, though to what degree in relation to each other’s role is a bit hazy, which makes the fact that Burkett will serve a life sentence and Perry is just eight days away from lethal injection a decade after the crime seem incredibly random.
However, Herzog doesn’t linger inside prison walls for long — or at least, the ones that hold Perry. Instead, the director conducts his own investigation that isn’t intended to prove guilt or innocence, but rather explore the passing down of inexplicable criminal behavior between generations in Conroe, which as Herzog slyly points out is just a stone’s throw away from a Texas town named Cut and Shoot. Nearly everyone involved in the case, whether they’re a victim or a perpetrator, seems to have a relative in prison, giving rise to one set of parentless children after another.
This is particularly true for the Burketts, a family that once had a reunion of two brothers and their father for Thanksgiving in a correctional facility’s diagnostics unit. As Delbert, the patriarch tells Herzog, “[The sons] thought it was pretty cool, but I was embarrassed.”
The ultimate question “Into the Abyss” poses is where does it all end? Short of the definitive answer currently offered by the penal system, there are few safety nets for people who live in places such as Conroe and when Herzog starts to ask people on the outside about their personal history, he teases out a hopeless situation where education isn’t a priority — Jarred Talbert, a man stabbed with the full length of a screwdriver, talks about his illiteracy — and the only thing that’s bestowed between absent fathers and their sons is a genetic inclination towards ill-gotten goods.
Remarkably, it was revealed that Herzog had less than an hour with each of his subjects, a feat made even more impressive as you watch the majority of them give him the once over as they start answering his occasionally obscure and often blunt questions. He makes his feelings clear, for example telling the boyish Perry minutes after meeting him, “I do not have to like you, but I respect you as a human,” and one gets the sense they are disarmed by having the opportunity to engage with someone from outside of their small community.
As a result, “Into the Abyss” has its share of surprisingly amusing moments mixed in with some that are emotionally raw, being true to its subtitle “A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life” as it doesn’t dwell on Perry’s impending execution or even punishment in general, but more on the vicious circle that brought these people together and those who have tried their best to leave it behind them. (Even on the inside, the story of Jason Burkett in some ways suggests he’s finding his way to freedom in a way his father, among others, never will.)
Having just arrived from another death row to continue shooting the miniseries for Investigation Discovery that “Into the Abyss” was originally intended to be a part of, Herzog made his feelings about the death penalty plain. “I’m against it, but I don’t have an argument. I have a story.” Though the one he told onstage explained how growing up in Germany in the first generation after Nazi rule disabused him of any belief in capital punishment, Herzog really has found a compelling one to share with “Into the Abyss,” a film that refuses to fit into any single ideology about the subject or the approach taken by any of its cinematic predecessors. For all the director's talk about what it means to be human, it may also just be his most humane.
"Into the Abyss" was recently acquired by Sundance Selects for U.S. distribution. It will play twice more at Toronto on September 10th at AMC 7 and September 17th at AMC 6.