Into the Abyss [Blu-ray]
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In his fascinating exploration of a triple homicide case in Conroe, Texas, master filmmaker Werner Herzog (Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Grizzly Man) probes the human psyche to explore why people kill and why a state kills. Through intimate conversations with those involved, including 28-year-old death row inmate Michael Perry (scheduled to die within eight days of appearing on-screen), Herzog achieves what he describes as a gaze into the abyss of the human soul. Herzog s inquiries also extend to the families of the victims and perpetrators as well as a state executioner and pastor who ve been with death row prisoners as they ve taken their final breaths. As he s so often done before, Herzog s investigation unveils layers of humanity, making an enlightening trip out of ominous territory.
"Extremely moving." -- David Denby, THE NEW YORKER
"Arresting." -- A.O. Scott, THE NEW YORK TIMES
"Extremely moving." -- David Denby, THE NEW YORKER
"Masterpiece." -- FILM4
"This riveting, haunting work fits perfectly into Herzog's resume as one of our most important living filmmakers." -- HOLLYWOOD CHICAGO
4/4 -- Calvin Wilson, ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
4/4 -- Roger Ebert, CHICAGO SUN TIMES
5/5 "This riveting, haunting work fits perfectly into Herzog's resume as one of our most important living filmmakers." -- HOLLYWOOD CHICAGO
Critic's Pick "Arresting." -- A.O. Scott, THE NEW YORK TIMES --This text refers to the DVD edition.
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It's not Herzog's style to make the documentary equivalent of a persuasive essay and although he states that he's against capital punishment, his film makes no such statement. It looks at each person, presents each detail, and allows us to interpret this information ourselves. As you can expect from the work of this great filmmaker, the questions we're left with are far greater than a simple vote of "for" or "against" in regards to the death penalty.
Michael Perry is on death row for a triple homicide in Conroe, Texas. His accomplice, Jason Burkett, is serving a life sentence and is not eligible for parole until 2041. There is no implication of doubt over their guilt despite declarations of innocence, particularly from Perry. Both admit to being involved, but Perry pins the guilt on Burkett, while Burkett does likewise to Perry. We learn that the reason for the murders (as if there could be one) was a Camaro that the two wanted to steal. This led to the murder of the owner, her teenage son, and his friend. A senseless act if ever there was one.
Both Perry and Burkett appear, answering the direct, curious, and sometimes difficult questions posed by Herzog. Aside from these two, Herzog speaks with relatives of the victims. One woman, who lost her mother and brother that night, recounts the tragedy and how nearly everyone in her family died in a six-year period, including the family dog. Another, who lost his brother, discusses the pain of that loss. Melyssa Thompson-Burkett is a young woman who married Burkett in prison and is pregnant with his child. When confronted with the fact that their only physical contact is hand-holding during visits, a few feet from a guard, she's ambivalent about the circumstances. Then there's Captain Fred who, after overseeing more than 100 executions, quit his job at the cost of losing his pension because he simply couldn't do it anymore.
The interviews range from fascinating to tragic to quietly amusing. When Herzog travels to the little town of (get ready) Cut and Shoot, Texas he talks to a former acquaintance of Jason Burkett. The man, illiterate and fascinated by the German director he's speaking with, calmly recounts a story of how Burkett stabbed him with a screwdriver, "about that long" and, unphased, he skipped the hospital to go to work. When Herzog observes the man's girlfriend's name tattooed on his arm, he asks what will become of it if the relationship fails. "I guess I'll have to add `sucks' right there," he says, or something to that effect. This sequence is fascinating in the miraculous way Herzog illustrates the man as a heroic figure in this town; a blue-collar, hard-worker, who tossed aside a knife during a fight so he'd be able to go home to his kids. He's one of those personalities just tailor-made for a Herzog documentary.
The most heartbreaking subject is Jason's father Delbert Burkett, also serving a life sentence in prison. He blames himself for Jason's poor upbringing and reflects on how his poor choices and neglect as a parent caused Jason to turn out the way he did. The truth and eloquent, hardened emotion that Herzog captures here could easily be the inspiration behind the film's title; it's here that Herzog actually enters the abyss of his subject's soul.
Into the Abyss is seemingly light on Herzog's not quite fiction, not quite factual "ecstatic truth" approach to documentary filmmaking, described by Herzog as "a merely superficial truth." It's one of his most quietly provoking films, silently moving from interview to interview and just looking. If any filmmaker is more qualified to go into the abyss simply to look at what's down there, it's Herzog. This latest effort is a fascinating exercise in what you can find if you just look.
Due to its lugubrious pacing and subject matter, the pacing is slow at times but it's hard to lose interest. This is the rare kind of documentary that will make you both think and feel. There are lot of questions and a lot of possible answers, but Herzog leaves us to choose which one we feel is closest to the right one. Other directors would have chosen a potentially innocent inmate and created a film based on the question of their guilt or innocence. By taking on two obviously guilty subjects, telling one of them "I don't have to like you," and examining the crime, the punishment, and the senselessness of it all, Herzog has substantially broadened the discussion. It may not have any immediate startling impact, but it will stay with you. It's one of the most important documentaries of 2011 and further evidence that Herzog is one of the most indispensable living documentarians.
This isn't an "issue" documentary, one concerned with facts and arguments. It has those things, but it is not about those things.
* "I do not do interviews. I'm not a journalist. I have no catalogue of questions. I have discourse. And I do not know where it will lead me. A goal is to look deep into the heart of ourselves."
Like most Herzog films, this was an ambitious undertaking, but it was ambitious for a different reason. "Fitzcarraldo" and "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" were ambitious because of immense logistical challenges. But this film was ambitious because he was trying to look 'into the abyss' of ourselves, and especially because he was trying to look 'into the abyss' of certain cautious and unrevealing rural Texans.
* "I was fascinated by this particular crime because of its senselessness."
Three people were killed for seemingly no other reason than a red Camaro--a red Camaro that the perpetrators kept for not even 72 hours before being detained, and a red Camaro that has since been impounded and eventually ruined when a tree grew through the floor.
* "While only eight hours of footage were shot to make the entire 118 minute film, the editing process was so intense that both the editor and I started smoking again."
The smoking paid off. There are some golden moments, like the preacher talking about his transcendent moment involving squirrels on a golf course, or the former executioner talking about living out the "dash" on the tombstone, or the cartoonish good ole' boy telling the story of getting stabbed with a screwdriver with almost clinical nonchalance.
* "Into the Abyss could have been the title for many of my films, by the way."
Don't let this be the only Herzog movie you see. As far as I can tell, there are only two truly great filmmakers currently operating, only two filmmakers not just deserving but *requiring* your undivided attention: one is Errol Morris and the other is Werner Herzog.
P.S. - As part of the same project, Herzog did a miniseries in four hour-long episodes called "On Death Row." All four can be found on YouTube and all four are very much worth watching--maybe even more so than Into the Abyss. If I had to recommend just one of the four episodes, it would be the one with James Barnes-- it is one of the creepiest things you will see, that a man so calm, thoughtful, and intelligent would casually admit to doing such gruesome things. It will annihilate your cozy worldview of gruesome murderers being "monsters."
My favorite moment of the series, though, comes at the end of the Linda Carty episode. There is a long lecture from the prosecutor about the dangers of attempting to "humanize" Carty because sympathies will go to the perpetrator instead of the victim. Werner's two-sentence reply lifted the hair on my skin.
Ostensibly the film is about a triple homicide. Two disadvantaged and undereducated teens in Conroe, Texas (Michael Perry and Jason Burkett) decided on a grand scheme to steal a car. Their master plan resulted in three brutal and unnecessary deaths. Perry was thought to be the actual triggerman and received the death penalty while Burkett got life in jail. By interviewing friends and families of the accused and their victims, Herzog paints a pretty bleak portrait of a class system that created this environment of violence. In speaking with the prisoners themselves (and Perry was eight days from the gallows in his segment), we see them today and how their statements about the crimes have changed. The additional component that Herzog integrates is to discuss aspects of the death penalty with those involved in the process. It ends up being almost like three separate subjects.
Herzog is front and center for every interview (his voice if not his visage). He seems to have a certain agenda when discussing topics and the interviews themselves can veer into awkward or unexpected territory solely due to Herzog's unusual line of inquiry (like the importance of reading). He even, at times, seems to be putting words into the mouths of his subjects and that was sometimes off-putting to me. When one of the victim's sister says she's glad she attended the execution, he twists around what she is saying to be a condemnation of the process. She ends on a note that had nothing to do with what she was actually trying to say. The film certainly has many powerful moments, but the anti-death penalty sentiment is well established without taking these unnecessary liberties. For my reservations, though, Herzog is always a filmmaker that isn't afraid to share his personal point of view. Much of "Into the Abyss" is haunting, memorable, and thought-provoking. It's a film that you're likely to think about long after it's over for any number of reasons, and that makes it an easy recommendation. KGHarris, 4/12.
Michael Perry and Jason Burkett were convicted of a triple homicide that took place in Conroe, Texas back in October, 2001. Just as others have noted, Perry is going to receive the death sentence and we see him being interviewed with scarcely a week to go before he is scheduled to be executed. Jason Burkett received a life sentence after his father, who is also in prison, pleaded with the jury to not execute his son and give him life instead. Burkett is eligible for parole in 2041. When interviewed, both Perry and Burkett proclaim their innocence over and over, each blaming the other for the triple homicide--and, sadly, it was all because the two (very young men at the time) wanted to steal a Camaro. A woman just about to bake cookies was killed; and it wasn't long after that her son and his friend were also killed--all over a car.
The other interviews are equally fascinating. One heartbreaking interview comes from Delbert Burkett, Jason's father, who admits that he should have been there for Jason when Jason was growing up and that as a result of his absence Jason "never really had a chance." We also get some interesting footage of an interview Herzog conducts with Melyssa Thompson-Burkett who married Jason in prison and is carrying his child. Herzog probes as to how she became pregnant when they are watched by a prison guard and cannot have more physical contact beyond just holding hands; and we see how Melyssa handles that. In addition, still more interview time comes from the sister and daughter of the shooting victims; so many members of her family died tragically within six years of the shooting and she tries to be strong for her children. There's yet another poignant interview with the older brother of one of the shooting victims.
Of course there's much more to the film, including other interviews, but I don't want to spoil it for you.
Into the Abyss is an excellent documentary about a triple homicide and its impact; the interviews are quite well done. This film will leave a lasting impression on you; it's just not a film that you can easily forget. I highly recommend this documentary for people who appreciate crime documentaries with social and cultural themes. People who like documentaries by Werner Herzog should also consider getting this for their collections.
Might as well get this out of the way at the very beginning. I believe the position from which Werner Herzog made this movie is wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. And the movie has a clear bias towards that position; in fact, the movie makes no attempt to hide that bias, and Herzog is to be, if not lauded, at least not condemned for trying to pass this off as an impartial documentary. But I'm not going to turn this review into an argument about pro- or anti-death-penalty, because the film deserves a review more impartial than it is. What separates Herzog from biased morons like Michael Moore, Robert Kenner, John Sullivan, etc. is that Herzog--as anyone who's watched more than, oh, three of his movies should be well aware--is just as concerned with how he tells a story as he is with the story he's telling. This is a very important, though sometimes subtle, distinction, but I'll tell you what: as much as I disagree with the material here, I was perfectly willing to take this ride with Herzog, just as much as I was with Grizzly Man or Cave of Forgotten Dreams or Burden of Dreams (in which Herzog is the subject, not the director) or...
Why is this? Because while Herzog is never shy about expressing his repugnance for the death penalty, and cherry-picks his interviews to make sure that everyone who's ever on-screen shares his viewpoint, the fact that he and his subjects are anti-death-penalty is rarely the main focus of any given interview. Herzog's way of interviewing people reminds me of John Edward (remember that guy? "And that man on TV who speaks to the dead, you know that man's a phony"?); he'll read the person's body language and catch the little things that animate someone during a monologue and then grab onto that and get them to elaborate. In the very first sequence, where he's talking to the state chaplain, the guy starts talking about how playing golf is one of the ways he centers himself, he's talking about meditation and being out in the middle of god's beauty, and he starts rattling off the things he might see during a day, the beauty of the grass, the dew, maybe a cow, and he says the word "squirrel" and there must be some little tremor in his voice, or a twitch of the hand off-camera or something, because Herzog's next words are "tell me about an encounter with a squirrel." It's just wildly off-topic, but it's crazy entertaining, and all the sudden our chaplain just lights up and he's talking about this squirrel he had an encounter with and you can't help but be riveted to the screen. It's that sort of ability to read people that made sideshow carnies small fortunes back in the day (and John Edward a much larger one last decade); if Werner Herzog wasn't making movies, he'd be a carny (a la Invincible) or a card sharp (a la The Grand; there's a reason Herzog is the most believable of the non-pros at playing a card sharp in that movie). People have tells, and Herzog uses them to get wonderful interviews, or get excellent performances out of actors (if you've never seen My Best Fiend, about Herzog's long working relationship with Klaus Kinski, you gotta), in the same way Patrik Antonius uses them to get millions of dollars out of the opponents he faces across the felt.
In other words--and this is a very long-winded way of making a point I constantly try to hammer home to people--it doesn't matter what the subject is, and it doesn't matter if you agree with the filmmaker's point of view regarding that subject, when you are in the hands of a truly excellent filmmaker--and Werner Herzog is a truly excellent filmmaker. I will admit that yes, my bias against his position collided with his bias for his position in that I did not like this as well as I did many of the Herzog films I mentioned throughout this review, all of which I would recommend without hesitation. But on the other hand, I look at this and I look at some of Herzog's early works, The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser for example, and it's easy to see how far Herzog has come as a filmmaker in the forty-ish intervening years, and it is, as it almost always is, impossible to criticize this film on any technical level. Werner Herzog cares about the making of the film. And because of that, he has made a film that is likely to compel those on both sides of the debate. I can speak from personal experience. *** ½