DIR: Werner Herzog •  ED: Joe Bini  • DOP: Peter Zeitlinger •  CAST: Michael Perry, Jason Burkett, Werner Herzog, Jeremy Richardson

Formally dedicated to the families of victims of violent crime, Into the Abyss A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life, the new documentary feature written and directed by Werner Herzog, is a sort of dry but at times humourous examination of why both people and authority kill.

Into the Abyss follows the story of an fatal crime that occured in 2001, a triple homicide in rural Texas, piced together through the interviews with the friends and family of the woman and two teenagers shot as part of a plan to steal a Camaro sports car, as well as with the perpetrators – Jason Burkett and Michael Perry. Burkett is 10 years into a 40-year sentence and Perry has eight days to go before his scheduled execution.

In Conroe, Texas, in 2001, Perry and Burkett were arrested and charged for shooting to death a middle-class housewife Sandra Stotler while she was baking cookies at home. The initial reason behind their breaking into the house was to steal her car. Obviously something went wrong – both in the events of that night and in their minds and three lives (Sandra Stolter, her adopted son Adam and his friend Jeremy Richardson) were taken away over a stolen car.

At first Michael Perry confessed on the spot and gave evidence which led police officers to retrieve the corpses of the two boys. Therefore Michael Perry was sentenced to death, while Jason Burkett was convicted and sentenced ‘only’ to a life sentence after the jury heard testimony from his father, also a long term inmate, about the boy’s tough and childhood lacking guidance.

Especially effective and breathtaking is the encounter that the German director has with Michael Perry, the more boyish of the two guys. Herzog meets Perry inside his prison a week before his execution. Despite the ‘pressure on his neck’ of the inexorable fatal day that is coming, Perry seems to show a certain vague equanimity towards his death and looks forward to a reunion with his late mother.

Into the Abyss is not a proper investigative documentary in the formal way as you could think of Errol Morris’The Thin Blue Line for example. Structured in a prologue and six chapters (with interviews scattered all over it), it uses a police account to set out the facts of the case. Herzog’s aims to  underline the senseless brutality of the death penalty and the emptiness of certain lives, (in this case of Perry and Burkett) that can lead deprived and lonely teenagers to destroy theirs and others’ existences for ever.

Into the Abyss is a very dark documentary where for some reason you will end up loving the gift of life even more. Through the stories accounted by the interviewees, we can sense how almost all the fathers mentioned are serving substantial prison terms themselves. People are arrested at their relatives’ funerals, live in car boots, can’t read, dump bodies where they’re bound to be found.

Nicola Marzano

Into the Abyss is released on 30th March 2012




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