Certainly one of Werner Herzog more provocative works, the German-born filmmaker’s new documentary “Into the Abyss,” subtitled: “A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life,” tangles with the aftermath of a series of senseless murders in Conroe, Texas a decade ago. The film, through Herzog’s omnipotent narration and trademark probing questions posed to a series of relations, friends and others, including a priest and a former death row guard, presents the viewer with what might be considered an even-keeled ship that sails along the turbulent waters which affected both the victims’ families and the men behind the monstrous crime. It seems that the only subject the director failed to place before the camera is the deity called up in the several conversations with those in the tangential circle of the convicted felons Michael James Perry and Jason Burdett. Maybe that footage will be the outtakes on the DVD release.
Ever an observer of the human condition, the filmmaker—now known mostly for his documentaries, but with a slew of award winning fiction titles to his credit (“Aguirre: The Wrath of God” and “Fitzcarraldo” among them)—has recently honored us with fascinating underground 3D excursions (“Cave of Forgotten Dreams”), contemplations of life in Antarctica (“Encounters at the End of the World”), and “Grizzly Man,” an examination into the 2003 death of grizzly bear expert Timothy Treadwell. As in the latter title, Herzog uses additional footage that he and faithful editor Joe Bini collected to tell the tale.
In his new film, it’s blood-splattered, 10-year-old crime scene footage on which Herzog ponders offscreen the what-ifs of death, putting forth his belief against the death penalty as a means of capital punishment. Whether his tone is occasionally anecdotal or, most often, seriously contemplative, the film is quite determined to force the issue, even if the two convicts are hard pressed in explaining their innocence. Perry, the born-again Christian on death row, considers his approaching demise at the hands of authorities, and looks forward to “going home.”
As the director redraws the events of the murders, I was reminded of Errol Morris’ 1988 documentary “The Thin Blue Line,” although the crime scene footage in that emotionally-driven feature was re-enacted. Herzog much prefers to present the truth without any political incentives. It is devoid of the subtle charm and light humor that has peppered his other non-fiction films; Mr. Herzog has certainly grown up, or at least, grown serious.
Even though the film wants to present the “best” of both sides, it is hard not to feel compassion for the family of the victims, represented by Lisa Stotler-Balloun, who lost a mother and brother at the hands of the car thieves turned killers. Her difficulties in coming to terms with the double loss, coupled with death-day footage of unbaked cookie dough and a bowl of dessert ingredients unstirred in her mother’s kitchen, pushes your passion toward retribution. Charles Richardson, whose brother was also killed (as well as a sister to a traffic accident), sheds two black tears under his left eye—a tattooed reminder of his emotional loss.
What the film does argue is that our culture, educational environment and community, chock full of temptations in the hands of children without proper guidance, can cause such conditions as examined in “Into the Abyss.” One of the killer’s fathers is a career criminal—40 years, 8 felonies, a life of regrets, and, finally, a god-fearing man. Indeed Delbert Burkett talks honestly of his failure as a father.
Broken down into a handful of numbered chapters like “Tone and Emptiness” and “A Glimmer of Hope,” the latter episode introduces Melyssa Thompson-Burkett, an articulate woman who latched onto Jason Burkett while he was and remains incarcerated until 2041, at the earliest. They married without consummating their relationship. Yet this woman talks almost with a biblical, yet confident, mystery that the baby she is pregnant with belongs to her husband. Weird.
As it winds to its inevitable conclusion, viewers are left to ponder right and wrong, and most will have the same mixed feelings they had before they took their first bite of popcorn. This looks to be on the short list for Oscar contenders.