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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

“Into the Abyss” finds humanity in death row inmates

In his new documentary “Into the Abyss,” now playing at the Pleasant St. Theater in Northampton, Werner Herzog asks polite, honest, and sometimes inappropriately phrased questions. But the citizens of Conroe, Texas don’t seem to mind. In fact, at no point does any interviewee seem off-put or offended by Herzog’s frank and heavily accented language. For a film about triple homicide and the death penalty, there were a remarkable number of moments where, due to awkward phrasing on Herzog’s part, the audience in the theater giggled.

“Into the Abyss” tells the story of Jason Burkett and Michael Perry, who, as teenagers, killed Sandra Stoler, her son Adam and his friend Jeremy Richardson, all because they wanted to steal a car. The film features interviews with family members of both the victims and the killers, police officers, citizens of the town, friends of those involved and the killers themselves. Burkett is interviewed from inside the jail where he serves a life sentence, and Perry is interviewed days before his execution. Supplementing the talking heads is raw police crime scene footage, which is revealing enough to make the weak of stomach squirm, but tastefully cut before anything truly gory is shown.

Incidentally, there is little difference between the amateur cinematography of the crime scene films and the cinematography of “Abyss” itself. Outside of interviews, the camera is always handheld, zooming in on things it wants us to be sure not to miss and lingering on what it finds most important. The haphazard and heavy-handed technique takes away from the power of the images themselves, and it is the only part of the film that feels like it’s trying to beat you over the head with something.

“Into the Abyss” is a timely film, following Rick Perry’s brag about executing 234 people in his time as governor of Texas and the controversy surrounding the execution of Troy Davis. But “Abyss” focuses on this one case and the story of the people involved. If there is a moral here, it is not explicit, despite Herzog stating at several points that he is against capital punishment.

Watching Perry’s interview days before his death, he is upbeat and personable, fully believing in his own innocence. He is never portrayed as a monster. But then the event of his execution is recounted by Stoler’s daughter, Lisa Stoler-Balloun, a woman who has suffered the deaths of almost everyone in her family over a six-year time span. She does not revel in Michael Perry’s death, but she does express gladness for having attended the execution. For this, the film makes no judgments.

Rather than make sweeping statements about morality, “Into the Abyss” functions as a portrait of one part of America. Scenic shots of the Texas countryside and less scenic visions of roadside attractions like evangelical churches and rundown gas stations indulge in a curiosity outsiders often have with the American South. But Herzog never talks down to anyone, nor does he reveal any stereotypes he may carry in his head. Part of Herzog’s strength as a filmmaker is finding the personhood inside everyone, regardless of class, education, social status or criminal conviction. At one point Burkett’s father, also behind bars, shares that his worst moment in life was having dinner with his two sons, all three of them in prison together. It is a sad and touching moment. Many of the people interviewed could easily be portrayed as two-dimensional white trash jokes. Herzog’s ability to generate sympathy and understanding from the audience is worthy of praise.

However, some of the less somber interviews do create moments of humor. One man tells the story of a fight where he was stabbed with a two-foot long screwdriver in the side of his chest. He recalls only seeing a small amount of pus, removing the screwdriver and heading off to work a half hour later. In a particularly astounding moment, Herzog forces the wife of Burkett – who had never met him before his incarceration and married him having only ever held his hand – to admit to smuggling sperm out of the prison so that she could be artificially inseminated with Burkett’s child. These stories are neither here nor there when it comes to the right and wrong of murder and capital punishment. They serve mostly to flush out the feeling of this place and time. They are not necessary for the film to function, but they distinguish it from what could have been a far more dull and somber movie.

As far as journalistic integrity goes, Herzog is more Capote’s “In Cold Blood” than Errol Morris’s “Thin Blue Line.” Objectivity is not Herzog’s goal, not as much as some sort of truth about the human spirit. He does not hide his own opinions, but he never plays detective, either. At no point is it clear exactly what happened on the night of the murders, nor is there any effort made to prove or disprove Perry’s innocence. And despite many opportunities, “Abyss” is never preachy.

“Into the Abyss” could have been an issue movie, exploring the connections and hypocrisies between murder and state-sanctioned execution. Instead it is a sometimes odd but always moving portrait of family, loss, crime and Texas. There is a feeling that Herzog genuinely likes his subjects, in the way he genuinely likes humanity. Despite the grit, horror and senselessness of the milieu, Herzog is still fascinated by even the most wretched soul.

Victoria Knobloch can be reached at [email protected].

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