Michael James Perry
You can count on German film director Werner Herzog to find whatever is difficult to talk about and be the most upfront and honest about it. Over the last four decades, he shot some of my favorite movies: AGUIRRE: THE WRATH OF GOD, FITZCARRALDO, LESSONS OF DARKNESS, NOSFERATU and his haunting take on WOYZECK to name a few. A few months ago, I've seen the trailer for INTO THE ABYSS as a preview before another movie and it seemed like a match made in heaven. Who would be better than Werner Herzog to discuss death penalty? It's a practice so ritualized and that spread over so many years in America that the punishment seems too be living in total reclusion for many decades, saying goodbye to everything you love and then having the last thing you own taken away from you, your own life. Being the kind of fearless intellectual that he is, Herzog goes at the heart of the question and scores an interview with a death row inmate, which he will articulate his film around.
The inmate in question is named Michael James Perry and is scheduled for execution one week from the moment of the interview *. Even on the edge of existence, he speaks a veiled lingo and seems to put all the blame on his co-accused Jason Burkett, who got himself a life sentence. They are accused of killing three people in relation to a car they stole. A red Camaro that belonged to Sandra Stotler, a fifty years old nurse. That's the murder Perry got convicted for. Instead of just stealing the car, they decided to get rid of her owner beforehand. Perry is also suspected of the murders of Adam Stotler and Jeremy Richardson, who died just hours after Mrs. Stotler, but it's Burkett who ultimately got convicted for them and condemned to life in prison. One blames the other and presents himself as the victim of a complete injustice. Who's telling the truth? It doesn't matter, as the system has already decided that none of them did.
That's the strength of INTO THE ABYSS. Not only it's a look into why men kill, but it's also a look into why the State does. Of why, as a society, we decide to take people's lives. This is all put together through a series of interviews with the culprits, but also with the family of their victims, with Jason Burkett's father and different figures of law enforcement. The most haunting and difficult for me, being the interview Herzog had with Fred Allen, who supervised over 120 executions and with the prison chaplain, who's proximity to death has made so powerless, he has developed a worship for life that reminded me of Buddhist philosophy. He explains, with tears in his eyes, that he stopped with his car to let a squirrel cross the road once and that sparing life brought him joy and pride. Thinking that death is as close to tan ultimate truth as it gets, I thought it was fascinating to see different beliefs just mesh together within the same person.
It's not without its issues, though. Herzog's method for tying up his narrative together is very instinctive and ultimately, his decision to not make a judgment about the case left me with a strange taste of unfinished business. I loved his slow pacing again in this movie, his conviction that time spent looking at a subject can alter your perception of it, but I feel that in this particular film, it could've used a more earnest approach. There were more people to talk to and this story of Burkett and Perry accusing each other, I would've loved to know what actually law enforcement though about it. The reflection on why people kill is really strong here and I'm talking IN COLD BLOOD strong (you will notice that the process is about the same), but the reflection on why the State puts people to death could've been a lot more thorough. It's a movie about death row after all and it's a little indecisive. It's solid, but it could've been so much more.
*Semi-spoiler, Perry has been executed on date, procedure went without complications.