Wednesday, November 9, 2011

REVIEW: Herzog's Best in Years, Into the Abyss Tells a Story of Grief, Horror and Resilience

There’s a snag of resistance at the start of Into the Abyss, Werner Herzog’s new documentary about the execution of Michael Perry, the 2001 triple homicide he was convicted of (but never confessed to) with Jason Burkett, and the relatives of their victims. The film opens with a shot of a cemetery filled with identical white crosses where the unclaimed bodies of inmates are buried, and an interview with the man standing in front of it, Reverend Richard Lopez, a clergyman for death row inmates in Huntsville, Texas. He tears up as he talks about counseling men who are about to be given a lethal injection, about how, with their permission, he holds their ankle as they’re on the gurney so that they have the comfort of human contact as they pass. It’s an uncomfortable moment, this abrupt leap into such fraught territory, and there’s a palpable disconnect between the subject matter and Herzog’s familiar voice, from off-screen, prompting Lopez for stories about his encounters with wildlife on the golf course on the weekends. A few years ago, Steve James’ heartsick At the Death House Door launched from a very similar shot into an investigation of the wrongful death of Carlos DeLuna and a gentle but relentless examination of the flaws in the American capital punishment system. That’s not the type of film you’d expect or want of Herzog, but at the same time it’s something the topic all but demands. Could this be territory in which there’s no room for the filmmaker’s beloved ecstatic truth, one in which only the grim accountants’ facts are appropriate? As it turns out, no. Into the Abyss, which bears the subtitle “A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life,” reveals itself to be an outlandish, compassionate and, at times, improbably buoyant film about life’s capacity for grief and horror and about how it bubbles on miraculously in the face of such things. It’s the best thing Herzog’s done in years. In Conroe, Texas, and the surrounding Montgomery County in which the murders took place, the filmmaker discovers a near-mythic land of broken families, sudden destructiveness and tremendous emotion, one in which a capacity for violence appears to be tucked away in everyone, along with one for love. The crime around which the film revolves is notable for its brutality and its needlessness. Perry and Burkett, both 19 at the time, shot Sandra Stotler, the mother of their 17-year-old friend Adam, in order to steal her Camaro. After dumping her body in a lake, they went back to retrieve the car, and ended up running into and killing Adam and Jeremy Richardson, the friend he was with, after luring them out into the woods. They were caught a few days later, after a high-speed chase and a shootout. What would possibly lead a pair of teenagers to murder three people, people they knew, just for their cars is something no one can answer — not the matter-of-fact policemen who walk us through the crime, and not the two who committed it. Both Perry and Burkett are intriguing, unreliable figures who offer interviews from behind bars. Perry, who’s only a few days from execution, is a boyish-looking 28-year-old who bears an unfortunate resemblance to Jim Carrey’s character in Dumb and Dumber. He professes his innocence and his calm, saying “I’m either going home to the world or home to God.” Burkett, handsome and cold-eyed, is more forthright, in part because he pleaded guilty and is serving a life sentence instead of facing lethal injection. He has, despite the decade he’s spent in prison, managed to get married, and the film pulls back to introduce his wife, then friends and family members of the convicts and the victims, and finally former Huntsville death house prison guard Fred Allen, sketching out a region that seems caught in some biblically inflected cycle of suffering, regret and rebuilding. Into the Abyss isn’t much to look at, its interviews taking place in prison visiting rooms, parks and modestly decorated parlors. The normalcy works in contrast with the jaw-dropping stories so many of these subjects nonchalantly share, of loved ones and loss. All of the families seem decimated by death or incarceration — Burkett’s father, who’s spent most of his life in jail, speaks of being united, behind bars, for a Christmas dinner with his inmate son. “I wish that I could take his time,” he says of Jason, speaking of his feelings of failure as a parent. “He had trash for a father.” Richardson’s older brother traveled to his sibling’s funeral knowing it meant he was jumping bond — he was arrested at the service. Lisa Stotler-Balloun reveals that the loss of her brother and mother were only the most recent of a string of deaths in her family, by train, by suicide, by sickness. But the most memorable interview of all is one born of apparent serendipity with Jared Talbert, a local who knew Jason and who comes from a similarly rough background (he was illiterate into adulthood). He offers some insight into the region in a section labeled “The Dark Side of Conroe.” Talbert talks about the time Jason almost shot him in the head over a girl — the gun misfired, saving him. He mentioned getting stabbed in the chest with a screwdriver during a fight, and going to work half an hour afterward instead of going to the hospital. And he shows off the tattoo of his girlfriend’s name, Bailey, on his arm — they’ve been together three years. When Herzog asks what he’d do if they broke up, he considers and then suggests he’d get it changed to “Bailey sucks.” It’s a funny moment, but it’s also endearing against all odds, an example of the resilience that runs through so many of the people on-screen, who have gone through extraordinary and often terrible things and soldier on in an admirably matter-of-fact way, prepared for the wonder and the awfulness the world has to offer. Read Movieline’s interview with Werner Herzog about Into the Abyss here. Follow Alison Wilmore on Twitter. Follow Movieline on Twitter.

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