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Into the Abyss

Into the Abyss

Released 30 March 2012
Director Werner Herzog

Jason Burkett, Werner Herzog, Michael Perry, Jeremy Richardson, Adam Stotler, Sandra Stotler, Kristen Willis
Writer(s) Werner Herzog
Producer(s) Werner Herzog

United States, United Kingdom, Germany
Running Time 107 minutes
Genre Documentary
Rating TBC

Dead men talking.

Werner Herzog is an unlikely confidante. Speaking to the inhabitants of one horse towns in Texas (with names like Cut and Shoot), his Bavarian accent still thick despite being a long-time resident of Los Angeles, there is a cold, detached quality to his manner that could prove intimidating. In fact, as is evident from new documentary Into the Abyss, he is a perceptive and admirably impartial interviewer. The resulting interviews form a fascinating, disturbing picture of the aftermath of a horrendous triple murder viewed through the eyes of those it has effected.

Michael Perry and Jason Burkett were both found guilty of involvement in the murder of a Texas housewife, her teenage son and his friend, all to facilitate a car theft. While Perry was sentenced to death, Burkett was given life imprisonment (he escaped death row thanks to an impassioned speech from his jailbird father). The film interviews both men (Perry just days from his scheduled execution), prison staff involved in carrying out death sentences and members of the families on both sides of the crime.

While both Perry and Burkett plead their innocence, Into the Abyss is not a crusade for justice in the vein of Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line; in fact we leave the film no clearer as to what happened that night than when it starts. Herzog is not interested in a criminal investigation. Instead, his questions attempt to trace the events that led these young men to that night, looking at how chance and circumstance can shape a life. This approach can occasionally be frustrating; it is difficult not to wish we knew more about the crimes, to hear the convicted men’s explanations. Still, his approach undoubtedly provides a valuable document of life as a convicted prisoner awaiting death.

On the other side of the coin, the interviews with the families of the victims are heartbreaking and serve as an emotional counterpoint to the wide-eyed, unrepentant Perry and the stoic Burkett. Herzog is clearly against the concept of capital punishment but the film doesn’t push this agenda overtly. It is only in the last section when it really comes to the fore, particularly in a remarkable conversation with a former death row police captain.

Into the Abyss may be occasionally frustrating but is never less than riveting. It provides a valuable insight to this kind of violent crime and its distressing legacy.

- Linda O’Brien