REVIEW: ‘Into the Abyss’ (2011)

Grade: B+

It’s admittedly a rather vapid reason to look forward to a director’s films based solely on the very sound of his voice, but heaven help me if being able to listen to Werner Herzog speak isn’t reason enough to get me excited for his documentaries. Whether it is his bizarrely unorthodox thought process or the vaguely menacing disposition of the voice through which those thoughts are projected, it’s his grandfatherly voice that comforts me even as it unsettles me, like some veritably unhinged Peter Falk to my Fred Savage. Shallow as that attraction may be, that voice reliably carries me through whatever world into which he offers a glimpse – be it an ancient cave in France, a collection of videos from a deceased bear enthusiast or a scheme to push a steamer boat over a mountaintop.

To my surprise, that wily voice is muted – if merely relative to his previous works – in Into the Abyss, the 46th feature film (and 27th documentary) to come from Werner Herzog. Yes, he continues to employ his trademark line of invasive questioning, nakedly prodding his subjects to some sort of profound self-realization.  And yes, that can occasionally come off as frustrating. Yet oddly he steps aside from narrating responsibilities, instead allowing rather plainspoken subtitles to tell the tale. Those unfamiliar with Herzog’s work are likely to remain irritated by the ego Herzog unapologetically brings to the screen, but for those who have grown accustomed and comfortable with his style as a nonfiction filmmaker, this move will more likely come across not only as atypically restrained, but appropriately suited to the story he documents.

That story Herzog documents began in 2001 in Conroe Texas, when two young men, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, allegedly murdered three people – a woman named Sandra Stoller, her son Adam, and Adam’s friend Jeremy Richardson – in order to apprehend the their victim’s two cars. Perry and Burkett were apprehended a mere 72 hours later, and were subsequently convicted for all three homicides. Burkett received a life sentence with a chance of parole in 2042, forty years after sentencing. Perry was given the death penalty, a sentence which the State of Texas obliged in July of 2010. Perry and Burkett each deny their respective guilt, blaming the other exclusively for the triple-homicide for which they were held responsible. Herzog dedicates the running time of Into the Abyss speaking to numerous individuals affected by the crime, from the perpetrators to the victims’ family members.

Herzog minces no words in voicing his distaste for the death penalty, declaring as much early on. It would be a mistake to assume, however, that the explicit point of Into the Abyss is to editorialize on the moral or social value of executing our criminals. Neither is it the point of this documentary to rally against any perceived injustice in how these two men were tried and sentenced; although Perry and Burkett maintain their innocence, Herzog seems unconvinced in light of evidence that clearly contradicts them. Herzog simply sits down next to his camera and converses with his subjects.

The result is something less Paradise Lost than it is Hoop Dreams. Neither a crime procedural nor clearly a work of advocacy, Into the Abyss instead operates as a rather nuanced portrait of a community where the lives of practically every individual is somehow touched by death, poor choices or the tragedy of circumstance. In addition to seeing interviews with the late Perry and the still-incarcerated Burkett, we speak to Sandra Stoller’s daughter (Adam’s brother), whose numerous other deceased family members are survived almost exclusively by her. Haunted by the calls that have delivered over the years consistently horrible news, she no longer owns a phone. We also meet Jeremy Richardson’s brother, himself having served time for crimes he committed, who recounts how he learned of his kid brother’s murder.

The most telling interviews, however, come from two members of Jason Burkett’s family. Herzog speaks to Jason’s wife, whom he only met well after his sentencing. The two have never had physical contact outside of embracing and hand-holding, yet she is pregnant with their child (the biological father’s identity is unclear, but strongly hinted at). Herzog also speaks extensively to Jason’s father, who is himself a criminal currently serving a forty-year sentence (not unlike his son). Herzog manages to provoke Dad to reflect on his own life choices, and what he might have done as a father to protect Jason from his fate.

These stories each make a deeply personalized contribution to the complex mixture of circumstance and ill-advised life choices defining the world these families must live within and suffer through. In a place where death becomes a constant, urgent and everyday reality – as opposed to an abstraction whose inevitability folks like you and I may understand, but not fully appreciate – I imagine life becomes less about finding avenues to improve one’s circumstances than it is about finding avenues to persevere and to survive. Michael Perry was killed in 2010 for his role in killing three other people. The deaths of these four individuals and their ramifications certainly shaped the lives of those they touched, just as the similar events and circumstances – it could be argued – helped set the stage for that awful 2001 night in Conroe.

The way Herzog presents his interactions with these people suggests an ugly, repetitive and inescapable cycle of death, crime and self-defeat. Blame is found nowhere, it seems, and it is found everywhere. What makes Into the Abyss one of the more powerful documentaries of the year (and the superior Herzog doc of 2011) is that its director, despite his occasional transgressions while interviewing, chooses to step back slightly and permit us to formulate what meaning his movie provides. It’s as if this twisted, grandfatherly voice has finally learned an all-important lesson: that from time to time, there are some stories that are capable of telling themselves.

Bottom Line: Werner Herzog’s trademark style as a nonfiction filmmaker is still intact, albeit with relative restraint. The resulting film is one of his more effective projects in recent memory.

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