“STARE LONG INTO THE abyss,” Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in Beyond Good and Evil, “and the abyss stares back into you.”
Into the Abyss is a fitting title for maverick director Werner Herzog’s meditation on death, not solely because of its subject–capital punishment–but because there is something missing from this otherwise compelling and sobering documentary.
The film concerns a triple homicide in the small city of Conroe, which is about 20 miles north of Houston, Texas, in 2001. Michael James Perry and Jason Aaron Burkett, then teenagers, murdered a middle-aged housewife, Sandra Stotler, in order to steal the keys to her car. Ms Stotler was baking cookies at the time. The pair then rang Ms Stotler’s stepson and his friend so they could get the code which would allow them to drive out of the gated community in which the Stotler family lived. They killed them too. Several days later, Perry and Beckett were arrested. They were convicted and then confessed.
The film has a sub-heading, A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life, which has a more literal meaning that you might at first assume. As Perry rots on death row, awaiting the inevitable, Burkett beds down in his cell each night with the knowledge that he will one day be a free man. Burkett was handed life in prison because his father, a habitual felon, made two female jurors cry during his trial, and the unanimous verdict required for the judge to sentence him to death was not reached. It is a rather powerful reminder that the question posed in the capital punishment argument is not the philosophical Should some crimes be punishable by death? but Should some crimes be punishable by death at the hands of the state?, the distinction being that the response to the latter question involves a number of practical considerations, such as the efficacy of law enforcement and the justice system, and political questions, regarding the role of the state, in addition to the obvious ethical considerations. The case of Perry and Burkett illustrates that due to a quirk of the legal system one man may live and one man may die for a crime perpetrated by both of them.
Herzog makes it clear at the film’s outset that he is against capital punishment, but the film isn’t polemical, and Herzog, outside of this concession, does not push the viewer towards a particular conclusion. Rather, he presents the viewer with a string of sober interviews with Perry and Burkett, the victims’ families and friends and law enforcement officers, separated rigidly by chapters with ominous-sounding names such as “The Protocols of Death”, and punctuated with oddities surrounding the case: a woman who married the imprisoned Burkett because a rainbow she saw outside the jail convinced her of his innocence; a tree that has grown inside the victim’s car during the decade it has stood in the car park behind the police station. Herzog never dwells on the guilt or innocence of Perry–incidentally, he claims the latter–and the narration is minimal.
What is the eponymous “abyss”? Is it the hopeless rural Texas landscape which bred the killers? Is it the killings? Or is it capital punishment itself, devoid, in Herzog’s eyes, of humanity and morality?
If Herzog was hoping the viewers of his film would come to the conclusion themselves that state-sanctioned execution is wrong, he might be disappointed. What is most alarming about Herzog’s film is the utter pointlessness of the murders–three people lost their life for a red Chevrolet Camaro–which, in its factual, unsensationalised presentation, is far more jarring than any Hollywood portrayal of a more heinous crime. And what is frustrating is not so much Perry’s guilt (or lack of guilt) but Perry himself. He is the titular abyss, staring blankly and unblinkingly through the glass at Herzog with a broad smile as bright and cheerless as neon, condemned to die but failing to offer much more than shallow commentary on the crime and his subsequent incarceration.
It is that singular point which lets this drifting, thoughtful documentary down. It is possible, of course, that Herzog was limited by law in what he could ask Perry, and equally possible that Herzog was unwilling to probe a man’s soul on the eve of his death. It is restraint from which Into the Void suffers.