By Richard von Busack
(Opens today at CineArts at Palo Alto Square).
Introducing the year’s best documentary… Some might be avoiding the new Werner Herzog film Into the Abyss because of its subject matter: a triple murder case by a pair of then-teenagers. One of the convicted was the chipmunk-like Michael Perry who, as of the time of the film, was scheduled to be executed on July 1, 2010 by the state of Texas.
His partner in crime, Jason Burkett received a life sentence; when Burkett went to prison, he joined one of his closest relations who was there, serving an extended sentence
Into the Abyss isn’t an obsessional horror film about the violence itself. The director does review the evidence taken on the places of the murders: a house’s living room, and a muddy lake not far away.
Blood and fury doesn’t interest Herzog.
The crime was a quick, banal, and commonplace, with clear motives. The object was a red Camaro that the two killers wanted. When Herzog shows us in several camera angles what finally became of this prize, it’s an indelible lesson in ultimate folly and waste.
The middle-aged German’s methods as an interviewer are solemn and humble, without affectation. He’s all the more emotional for his dispassionateness, but Into the Abyss isn’t prosecutorial or a pity-party. Herzog has the right kind of voice to be an oncologist, telling a patient he only has months to live.
We never have the sense of a famous man wielding the camera. He keeps his distance. One remembers Nicholas Ray’s motto, “I’m a stranger here myself”. Because of his strangeness, Herzog is good at getting people to talk. It’s a gift.
In the presence of Perry, a dead man walking, and a man who can only really focus on his own suffering, Herzog is sympathetic, but he’s not a tool.
Herzog juxtaposing the two sides of the tracks in Conroe, Texas: the gated community where the crime occurred, and the rougher side of town. He talks to people who knew people: we meet a female bartender at the bucket of blood tavern where Perry stopped to show off his brand new stolen ride.
Herzog rounds the circle of misery caused by these foolish, drugged kids, to speak to others affected. One is a prison deathhouse captain who quit after ministering to many executions. Another is the victim’s daughter, who imprisoned herself in her home for years after the crime. Lastly is a woman who loves Burkett with a great reservoir of hope.
Into the Abyss is a subtle yet damning film against the death penalty, shot in a state that adores the process beyond reason. Even Governor Ann Richards, of sainted memory to Democrats, executed 50 people. It’s a seriously tragic film but not at all a depressing one. There is hope in it. Surely even the most beloved custom has to yield some day to common sense.