This much we know is true: In October 2001, in the town of Conroe, Texas, two young men named Michael Perry and Jason Burkett murdered 50-year-old Sandra Stotler in her home, planning to steal the cherry red convertible in her garage. She was baking cookies in her kitchen. They shot her in the head with a shotgun, threw her body in the back of a pickup and dumped it in a nearby lake. Then they drove back to the scene of the crime to claim their prize, and when they discovered the gates of her residential community locked for the night, they waited for her son Adam, 16, and his friend Jeremy Richardson, 18, to arrive. The killers lured the two boys into the woods behind the Stotler home — they all knew each other — and murdered them, too. Then, finally, they drove off with the car.
Perry was 19 at the time of the murders. The first time you see him in Werner Herzog’s documentary Into the Abyss, he is 28, on Texas’ death row and only eight days away from execution by lethal injection. Herzog’s camera pulls in close on Perry through a clear Plexiglas partition. You search the convict’s face and look into his eyes — vibrant and curious and full of life — hoping to find a sign or even an intimation of madness. You need something to help you understand how this ordinary, likable young man could have committed such an unspeakable crime.
One of the points of Herzog’s powerful film is that sometimes, there is no explanation. Into the Abyss is not an investigative work like Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line: There is no question about Perry and Burkett’s guilt, even though they proclaim their innocence during interviews. A more apt comparison to Herzog’s movie is Dead Man Walking, director Tim Robbins’ 1995 Oscar winner about a death row inmate. Both films use an unremarkable crime to remarkable effect, exploring our instinctual need for retribution, pondering the effectiveness of capital punishment and asking how and when human life became so devalued.
What is the abyss Herzog refers to in the title? Is it the small, horrible room with sickly green walls where grim-faced men carry out their death orders? Is it the jaded, fatalistic mindset that allows people like Perry and Burkett — both of whom are sane and eloquent and able-bodied — to commit three murders for the sake of a joy ride? Or is the abyss our country entire, with our gun-happy culture of violence and eye-for-an-eye sense of justice and tendency to condemn rural small towns and all who live there to the white-trash heap?
Through straightforward, almost blunt interviews he conducts off-camera (we only hear his voice), Herzog makes the argument for all three possibilities. We meet Lisa Stotler-Balloun and discover that in the months before the murder of her mother and brother, she also lost her father and uncle and sister to illness and accidents and simple bad luck. The killers took the last living relatives she had. How can anyone argue her desire to see Perry’s execution carried out?
We also meet Burkett’s father, himself in prison serving a life sentence. His testimony was the only thing that spared his son from death row (he received a life sentence). But the elder Burkett is still weighed down by remorse and guilt. “I felt like an utter failure as a father,” he says about the day he and his son left the courtroom in handcuffs and were driven back to prison by bus.
Herzog talks to Richardson’s older brother, tattooed and muscular and on parole for drug possession, and he struggles to not break down when remembering that he introduced his little brother to the people who would later murder him. We meet the officer who supervised the guards on Huntsville’s Death Row, presiding over as many as two executions a week for years, until he couldn’t do it any longer and quit his job, sacrificing his pension in the process.
Into the Abyss prowls the Texas badlands (including a visit at a town improbably named Cut and Shoot), depicting the expected backdrops of drugs and poverty and illiteracy and hopelessness. But the movie also finds humor and warmth and love, too. There’s a wonderful sequence in which Herzog interviews a tough young man who chuckles at the director’s pronounced accent and funny way with words, even as he’s recounting stories of being stabbed in the armpit with a long screwdriver and having a gun fired point-blank in his face. We meet the woman who married Jason Burkett while he was in prison (and is now carrying his unborn child), who talks about rainbows and true love and her hopes for the future.
And even in Perry, who we last see smiling and shrugging and calm — unrepentant but also unperturbed by the fate approaching — Herzog finds brightness and something close to peace. The overriding point of Into the Abyss, what keeps this sad, sorrowful film from becoming depressing and elevates it far above the usual chatter of liberal-conservative debate, is that there can be light on the other end of even the darkest of tunnels.
Director: Werner Herzog.
Producer: Erik Nelson.
Editor: Joe Bini.
A IFC Films/Sundance Selects release. Running time: 104 minutes. Adult themes, graphic crime scene footage.Opens Friday Dec. 30 in Miami-Dade only: Miami Beach Cinematheque.