Into the Abyss (2011)


(director/writer: Werner Herzog; cinematographer: Peter Zeitlinger; editor: Joe Bini; music: Mark DeGli Antoni; cast: Richard Lopez, Michael James Perry, Damon Hall, Lisa Stotler-Balloun, Charles Richardson, Jason Burkett, Jared Talbert, Amanda West, Delbert Burkett, Melyssa Thompson-Burkett, Fred Allen; Runtime: 107; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Erik Nelson; Sundance Selects; 2011-in English)

“Questions if the state has the right to murder.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Veteran German filmmaker Werner Herzog (“The White Diamond”/”The Grizzly Man”/”The Wild Blue Yonder”), who openly states he opposes the death-penalty, films a riveting documentary that takes a sobering look at a triple homicide in the small-town of Conroe, Texas and observes how punishment is meted out to the two convicted murderers. The director’s opinion is that capital punishment over a life sentence is not a fit way for a civilized society to get justice and questions if the state has the right to murder. Herzog relies on commentary of those involved on both sides of the tragedy to speak their mind, as he probes for answers to why people commit such heinous crimes and how those horrible crimes affect the lives of both the victim’s and killer’s families. Included in the interviews are one with 28-year-old death row inmate Michael Perry, who is scheduled to die within eight days by lethal injection in a Huntsville prison Death-House, and with his killer partner, of about the same age, Jason Burkett. The troubled boys ten years ago in 2001 killed Sandra Stotler for her red Camaro and dumped her body in nearby Crater Lake. When returning to get the car in the gated community of the vic, it was locked during the evening so the cold-blooded killers killed her son Adam and his friend Jerry Richardson when they arrived at the gate and stole the gate clicker and their coveted car and also stole Adam’s car. The boys were arrested within a week in a police shoot-out, possessing the car for about 72 hours. There’s no question of their guilt, just of what’s a fair punishment. Through the passionate plea to the jury during sentencing, Jason’s lifer felon dad got his son a life sentence by telling of his kid’s bad childhood due to poor parenting.

Though it doesn’t bring us any closer to deciding if the death penalty is warranted, as whatever opinion you had before viewing the film I’m almost sure wouldn’t change after viewing the film. But it’s a provocative film that makes us think about what kind of people are Americans and if we have done all we could to create a more peaceful and civilized society where violence isn’t such an accepted way of life.

That all the subjects were candid in their responses to Herzog’s questions, allows the viewer to reflect in a clear-headed way on the gruesome crime and how the justice system works without the undue interference of angry emotional outbursts from any of the subjects.