Film: Into the Abyss: A Tale of Life, A Tale of Death
Today, the great state of Texas is due to stick a needle into each of Jesse Hernandez’ arms and inject him with, in order, a barbiturate, a paralytic and a lethal potassium solution, the last of which will induce fatal cardiac arrest. Hernandez was sentenced to execution in 2002 for beating a baby to death with a flashlight, and if all goes ahead as scheduled—there may be a last-minute postponement—he’ll be the fourth person to be executed in Texas in 2012, and the eleventh person in the US. Tomorrow, Alabama’s Thomas Arthur is due to be the twelfth. All of which may or may not lend a shred of perspective to Werner Herzog’s Death Row documentary Into the Abyss—a haunting attempt to navigate the moral and ethical labyrinth of capital punishment.
Also concerned with events in Texas, Herzog’s central focus is on the case of Conroe residents Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, together accused of murdering three people in order to steal a sportscar; Perry has since been executed, while Burkett is serving a life sentence. The film consists largely of interviews with the two men in prison, their families and those of their victims, as well as the investigating officers, and the staff of a Texas Death House. Perhaps the most chilling footage, however, is the crime-scene video taken by police at the site of the first murder—a large house in a comfortable gated community, in which a tray of unbaked cookies sits eerily on the kitchen worktop where Sandra Stotler had left it just before being killed by two shotgun blasts.
Gently coaxing his subjects to reveal their varying perspectives on the murders, Herzog’s most quietly persuasive feat is blending their testimonies together in order to generate an overwhelming sense of ambiguity over the case. The impassive account given by a police detective sits uneasily next to the emotional testimony of one victim’s sister and another’s brother; the accused blame each other for the crime, and Burkett’s wife maintains his innocence while his father—also in prison—implicitly accepts his guilt. Herzog’s purpose isn’t to put his subjects on trial (again) or to judge them, but merely to indicate the impossibility of an objective standpoint, to evoke a murky uncertainty with which the certainty and finality of death is entirely at odds—a juxtaposition which brings out the inherent ethical dilemma in imposing such a concise punishment even for the most heinous of crimes.
Another theme familiar to Herzog’s oeuvre is that of time. The director poignantly corrects Burkett’s incarcerated father when he says that his son will be up for parole in 1941, telling him he’s a century off, but then that ‘time must be different for you in here’, which meets with tacit agreement. And one imagines Herzog being delighted at the perfect metaphor presented by the red Camaro that Perry and Burkett had originally set out to steal—now sitting in a police impound lot, a tree growing from beneath it and rooting it to the spot, as if to emphasise the irony of its inertia, its worthlessness to anyone any longer.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the film, however, is Herzog’s approach to the Texan milieu in which the stories take place. Into the Abyss revels in exoticizing America’s Deep South, in casting its journey as a quasi-Heart-of-Darkness style voyage into a dark, gothic land pervaded by death. In the section entitled ‘The Dark Side of Conroe’, several long, vehicle-borne tracking shots traverse desolate gas stations and trailer parks, passing pink stucco churches and signs declaring ‘Sinners Welcome’. A barmaid tells of having ‘seen so many awful things’, while a musical soundtrack of screeching cellos and twanging steel-string guitars enhances the heady, Faulknerian atmosphere.
This exoticizing impulse is somewhat problematic—distorting the environment to match the director’s gloomy narrative. Herzog, after all, freely admits to having provided his interviewees in
other films with scripted answers, allegedly in order to get at a greater truth as he perceives it (though given the gravity of the subject matter, he avoided the tactic on Into the Abyss). Of course, this is has to be taken with a pretty massive pinch of salt; the idea that any documentary—and particularly Herzog’s subtly manipulative editorial style—can achieve anything other than a highly subjective perspective is utter fallacy. But as long as that’s accepted, we may as well indulge in his exotic South. Indeed, though the subject is bleak, Into the Abyss is a richly detailed and thoroughly accessible study, and a darkly compelling portrait of death breeding death.
Into the Abyss: A Tale of Life, A Tale of Death is out Friday 30 March.