Friday, November 11, 2011

Film Review: Into the Abyss

Werner Herzog's new documentary Into the Abyss takes us on a nightmarish trip into the lives of criminals and victims in the aftermath of a triple murder that happened in Texas ten years ago. Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, teenagers at the time, were convicted of murdering Sandra Stotler and tied to two more homicides of teenage boys. The murders, according to the police and some witnesses, were committed with the sole objective to steal cars.

Eight days before his execution, Perry speaks to Werner Herzog in prison about his faith and his life behind bars. Also included in the documentary are Stotler's daughter (sister of Adam Stotler, another one of the victims), Jason Burkett who did not get the death penalty, and Burkett's father, who, incredibly, is also serving a forty-year sentence and who was handcuffed to his own son on the way from court. Witnesses and death row personnel speak about the meaning of life and death for them. And Burkett's wife, who met him after he was imprisoned, speaks of their life together.

To me, the film was not a heavy-handed, idealistic or pragmatic critique of the death penalty. Instead, it presented a much subtler argument based on the futility of death -- of law, really -- to truly ever encompass and address the abyss of sadness and dysfunction that permeates the lives of all the people involved. Strikingly, everyone featured in the documentary -- victims and defendants -- is surrounded by imprisonment and death. Jail is a fact of life, as is victimization in dreadful accidents and violent altercations. So much loss and grief, to which more loss and grief is added through the crime and, subsequently, through the punishment.

I found Ms. Stotler's words at the end to be absolutely fascinating. She says she would be satisfied with life without parole, and nonetheless, she got something out of attending the execution. It brought her some closure and relief. As Herzog invites her to reflect on the source of the closure and relief, she says, "he was just a boy. I had made him into that monster, and then I saw him, and he was just a boy." Who knows how much relief, mercy, and grace would have been attained had Perry reached out to the family of his victims.

A subtle, profound, and thought-provoking piece, Into the Abyss is highly recommended to those who want to think about the death penalty, victimization, and criminality beyond crude partisan abstractions.

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