The death penalty is one of the most contentious issues in the United States. Some people believe that the state does not have the right to take a person’s life no matter the crime while others argue that capital punishment is a just penalty for murder. In Into the Abyss, director Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams) presents an emotionless depiction of what it means to put someone to death. That is, the film’s perspective is emotionless; the individuals interviewed in the film are anything but dispassionate.
Focusing on the people involved in a triple homicide in Conroe, Texas, Into the Abyss is composed of a series of interviews Herzog conducted in 2010. According to court records, in 2001 Michael Perry and Jason Burkett (both 19 at the time) murdered Sandra Stotler in her home so they could steal her red Chevrolet Camaro. After disposing of Stotler’s body, the two men returned to her neighborhood and lured her son, Adam, and his friend Jeremy Richardson into the nearby woods. Perry and Burkett shot both the boys because they needed the access key to re-enter the gated community to retrieve the Camaro.
Interspersed with actual police footage, the film traces a timeline from the crime all the way through Perry and Burkett’s arrest. Herzog also includes interviews with Lisa Stotler Balloun, the daughter of Sandra and sister of Adam, as well as Charles Richardson, Jeremy’s brother. Most disturbing is Herzog’s conversation with Burkett’s father who is himself serving a 50 year sentence, the fifth time he has been incarcerated.
At the center of the story is Perry who is scheduled to be executed eight days after Herzog meets with him. Though he maintained his innocence, Perry’s execution took place as scheduled. Burkett is serving a 40 year sentence but will not face the death penalty. Waiting for him on the outside is his wife who is pregnant with their first child.
What is most astounding, and often chilling, about Into the Abyss is Herzog’s complete objectivity when dealing with this incomprehensible crime. He does not judge Perry or Burkett nor does he question their innocence. He simply presents the facts as they are allowing the audience to form their own opinions. This willing impartiality is sorely lacking in the vast majority of documentaries being made today. In interviews regarding his film, Herzog has emphatically stated that it is not his place to pass judgment on these men because Into the Abyss is not an “issue film.” It most closely resembles a visual transcript of the facts and nothing more.
Though he is best known for his documentary films, Herzog has also dabbled in the narrative form with films like Rescue Dawn and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?. His storytelling ability is evidenced in his prologue which features a death row chaplain who is present at the time of a prisoner’s death. His appearance is bookended with a former death row prison guard who took part in over 125 executions during his tenure. These two men who witness or witnessed death on a regular basis are perhaps the most powerful figures in the film.
Into the Abyss will hopefully prompt discussion among audiences. It is a fascinating film which is expertly orchestrated by Herzog and his brilliant sense of pacing and juxtaposition. Because we are accustomed to documentaries and true crime reality television focusing on resolution, the lack of conclusiveness will frustrate some viewers. However, this is the film’s most powerful attribute because we are influenced by no one’s opinion but our own.
This film is rated PG-13 and runs 107 minutes.