Film Review: Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life

Essayistic yet visceral, this stunning true story about murder, punishment, and living with it all is not just one of the year’s most shattering cinematic experiences, but possibly Werner Herzog’s true claim to cinematic immortality.

It’s a jarring sensation at first, the sound and feel of Werner Herzog hovering behind the camera. His icy, sarcastic skepticism and blaringly Teutonic English don’t seem to be the right fit. This appears to be, after all, a very well-intentioned film about a pair of death-penalty cases in Texas. Herzog has long seemed more at home in the company of aberrant outsiders and inhospitable corners of nature whose whole existence seems to shrug laughingly at human endeavor. But here, in the quiet suburban cul-de-sacs, long and empty roads, and matter-of-fact state charnel houses of East Texas, Herzog plugs into a multilayered saga that unfurls some intensely human truths. It could be his masterpiece.

Given the Kieslowskian subtitle of “A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life,” Herzog angles obliquely at his story, which starts in a gruesomely pointless 2001 murder in the town of Conroe, north of Houston. Crime-scene footage shows the pretty suburban home of so many true-life tabloid crime series. Blood is splattered on the walls, the camera crawling in to get every detail just like Herzog did in this year’s more scattered and ephemeral Cave of Forgotten Dreams. A local policeman provides the background of the case, in which a 50-year-old woman, Sandra Stotler, her son and his friend were murdered because a couple of guys wanted her car.

Herzog interviews one of the men on death row for the crime, the jumpy, kid-like and disturbingly grinning Michael Perry, set to be executed eight days later. Perry has converted to Christianity, and says he'll be "going home" either way, whether to his actual home or the afterlife. Perry’s apparent accomplice, Jason Burkett, seems even less fazed by the crime, dancing around the details of it in a manner intended to charm.

The case itself is a tangled mess, with Herzog throwing in shards of details that provide a clue to the chaos of the murder itself (the lack of any real motive, the running shootout with police that followed) as well as the general atmosphere of drift and loss. Whether it’s the random acquaintance of one of the killers who recalls the time he had a screwdriver shoved into his chest for no good reason or Stotler’s relative who wants to see the killers dead but later calls it all an “atrocity,” the drama is not of right and wrong or innocence and guilt, but rather of ruin and damage everywhere. This is never more apparent than in Herzog’s jailhouse interview with Burkett’s father, Delbert, a quiet and beaten-down type who answers with a proper “Yes, sir” to each question about his life of near-constant drink, violence and prison. Mark Degli Antoni’s Philip Glass-like score, a scraping and haunting soundscape, only exacerbates the sensation of loss.

Herzog bookends the saddened core of the story by speaking with two of the people responsible for guiding the condemned through their execution. First is the incomparably decent prison chaplain, Richard Lopez, who describes standing at the condemned’s feet, placing his hand on their ankle, and keeping it there until they are dead. Later is Fred Allen, the gruff and heart-heavy man who ran the “Death House” at Huntsville prison with as much dignity as possible until he just couldn’t anymore. Allen’s testimony comes ripped from experience and wisdom, like it should be carved in stone: “Nobody has the right to take another person’s life.”

Into the Abyss is true to its subtitle. This isn’t just a film about this death-penalty case, or even any death-penalty case. It’s a larger story about life and its purpose, one that comes (as Herzog tells us straight out) from the heart of an agnostic who doesn’t seem able to make sense of the mechanized tragedy he’s witnessing. By taking the gut-twisting drama of this case and entwining it with a larger discussion of morality, Herzog propels his film beyond advocacy cinema into something greater. In the annals of modern crime documentaries, it deserves ranking right alongside The Thin Blue Line.

No film could end the death penalty. But if one could, it would be Into the Abyss.