Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Herzog’s Into the Abyss

It might technically be impossible to tell if someone is guilty just by looking at them, but death row inmate Michael Perry certainly gives the appearance of a sociopath. However, the late Perry turns out be the least compelling figure in his own case. Werner Herzog doggedly probes the raw emotions surrounding the death penalty, talking at length with the families of Perry’s victims, his accomplice, and those charged with carrying out the ultimate sentence in Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

Of course, Perry proclaims his innocence in his final interview, but Herzog, an avowed opponent of capital punishment, never bites. After all, Perry initially confessed to the crime and the evidence (both physical and circumstantial) backed him up. It was indeed Perry who committed the murders and only Perry, according to his now remorseful criminal collaborator, Jason Burkett, currently serving a life sentence for his own role in the murders.

To his credit, Herzog lays open the premeditated brutality of the three killings they were convicted of, in cold unsettling detail. Coveting the cars owned by Sandra Stotler, the mother of a mutual friend, Perry ambushed the middle-aged woman in her own home, pumping two rounds from a 12-gauge shotgun into her. When her son Adam arrived home with another friend, Jeremy Richardson, the killers intercepted them, luring them both into the forest on a pretext, where they were executed. This narrative is never challenged in Abyss.

Herzog does not merely take the innocence defense off the table. He gives victim’s family members time to fully express their grief and pain. The fact that Jeremy Richardson’s brother Charles looks like a redneck who could have walked out of a more idiosyncratic Herzog doc makes his unvarnished testimony vividly real and forceful. Yet, nothing compares to the heartache of Lisa Stotler Balloun, the grown daughter and sister of Sandra and Adam Stotler.

Ironically, Herzog’s most persuasive case against the death penalty comes not from those directly involved with the Stotler murders, but from the professional staff charged with implementing capital sentences. For the prison chaplain and former corrections officer Herzog interviews, it is clear the weight of the executions they have witnessed heavily burdens their souls. In a sense, this becomes analogous to a second-hand smoke argument against the death penalty.

There are some viscerally powerful scenes in Abyss, but Herzog’s concerted efforts to elicit sympathy for Burkett become somewhat obvious and heavy-handed. Excessive time is also devoted to the woman Burkett married, who rather unconvincingly insists she is not a prison groupie. Still, he wisely limits his own on-screen presence, maintaining an appropriately somber and respectful tone throughout the film.

Herzog readily admits his goal is to spur people to reexamine their assumptions about capital punishment. Yet, those who enter the film agreeing with Herzog might just leave with the sinking feeling justice was done in this case, in nearly every respect. That is good filmmaking, if flawed propagandizing. The former is more valuable. Surprisingly nuanced and balanced, Abyss is considerably better than one might expect. One of the best true crime documentaries of the year (far superior to Incendiary, for instance), Abyss opens this Friday (11/11) in New York at the IFC Center.