“Three people died for this car,” a police officer says while standing over a vehicle. “A car that was in their possession for a little less than 72 hours.” Werner Herzog’s documentary Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life is very much the tale of the cavalier attitude some have of both life and death and argues that when the state executes someone, they hold the same thoughtless attitude.
It follows two inmates, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett. Perry is on death row and Burkett is serving a life sentence. They were convicted in the triple homicide of Sandra Stotler, her son Adam Stotler and his friend Jeremy Richardson. Herzog faithfully recreates the crime in which Perry and Burkett, in an attempt to steal a car, left three bodies in their wake. We are led through the facts by the lead detective for the crimes, which occurred ten years ago. The cop makes it seem fairly cut and dried but there’s some dissent among the defendents about how deeply they themselves were involved compared to the other. But Into the Abyss is not about rasising doubt about Perry’s and Burkett’s guilt, (Perry was already executed by the time the film was finished) it is about grief and the preciousness of life and how if the law decides to disregard it, how shocked can we be when its citizens do the same.
Herzog structures the movie for maximum impact, starting with a death row reverend who reads last rights to condemned inmates. Then the crime is deconstructed and we see how stupid and thoughtless the murderers were, killing on a whim, simply because these people came between them and a beat up Camaro. Then we get to meet Perry and Burkett, and certainly the families of the victims. Documentaries have the ability to capture human behavior that would seem bizarre if it were written by a screenwriter or chosen by an actor. In Into the Abyss, the sister of two murder victims runs down a list of her family members who have died. She recalls that her father died six months before she was married. This woman lost her mother and her brother to murder and she says that her father and a different brother were hit by a train. She adds, with a strange smile that conveys a sort of pride in the fact that one woman could take so much tragedy and still be standing, that the family dog was hit by the train as well. No actress would choose such a gesture, but would more likely identify an opportunity to go bigger with grief. Life isn’t dramatics.
And what screenwriter would insist on the repetition in the answer of Burkett’s father, incarcerated for most of Jason’s life, who blames himself for the way his son turned out, when asked if he could go back and live his life again, what would he change. He says he was offered a football scholarship from the University of Texas but he dropped out of high school instead. He says he always told his children not to turn out like him but now he regrets that he couldn’t have been a role model as opposed to a warning. He must repeat a dozen times how he wishes he could have played baseball with his son. In a screenplay it’s over the top, in a documentary it must be authentic because it is.
Finally we meet an ex-police officer who used to administer executions until it became too much for him. The arrangement makes for an usually effective emotional argument. The reverend conditions us for thoughtfulness, the ugliness of the crime turns us against the boys, but in the grief of the survivors, connected to the murders on both sides, we must agree that, as miserable as the crime was, another life taken is not the answer. The sister does admit that she was given a considerable amount of relief watching Perry’s execution, but concedes that she must sound awful to say that. Herzog, to his credit, is upfront with his purpose for Into the Abyss and never mixes signals about which side of the debate he falls.
The director, who’s deep accented voice can be heard asking questions (and honestly, leading interviews) throughout the movie, which is his style, and he makes a raw empassioned argument that taking human life is wrong in any capacity. While Burkett is effectively removed from society for life, his wife, who met and married him after his incarceration, is carrying his child (she was artificially inseminated, their physical contact is severely limited). She proudly shows a ultrasound image on her phone of the baby. “There’s my strong jaw,” she says, of the indistinguishable photo. It’s a nice moment but we can’t help, given what Burkett’s father said about his own absent upbringing, but worry about the challenges that lie ahead for the unborn child.
I think that Herzog’s point is that while some have been consoled and things can grow out of this kind of tragedy, nothing can replace the hole left by this type of loss, especially not more death. In a flight of fancy that Herzong would have loved to have written for one of his fiction films, the ex-cop closes the movie with a question, “Hummingbirds. Why are there so many of them?” It’s a powerful question in context but I have a feeling that the man who gave us Bad Lieutenant’s iguana and Aguirre’s monkeys couldn’t resist.