Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life (2011)

Into the Abyss (2011) – Well, now seems as good a time as any to get into my feelings on the death penalty. Not that I think movies reviews are necessarily the place for such things (though that hasn’t stopped me before) but I think whenever there’s a particularly divisive issue it helps to know where someone is coming from: to have a declaration of bias as it were. I am not against capital punishment per se. I think some people do horrible things and deserve to die for them. Arguments that never work on me: “it doesn’t bring the victims back” or “it’s ineffective as a deterrent.” Well that’s why they don’t call it the Death Deterrent. It’s the Death Penalty. It’s punitive. Anyone who argues for it as a deterrent is kidding themselves in my humble opinion. It doesn’t bring victims back, but neither does a life sentence. Dead is dead. For years, my diatribe would have just ended there. It was my one and only hardcore conservative issue. The problem, however, as I grow older is that I don’t have faith in people to pass that judgment. I certainly don’t have faith in our court system to make that determination. There’ve been more than just a few people on death row who have been cleared of their charges. There are people who have already been executed who have been posthumously proven innocent. Some people deserve to die, I still believe that, but humanity just isn’t qualified to make that call. So as far as the laws of the country I live in are concerned I am against capital punishment (hence the earlier qualifying “per se” during my statement of support). So there you have my (rather lengthy) declaration of bias. That’s where my head’s at going into Werner Herzog’s latest documentary.

Herzog’s latest film, Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life, centers around the case of Texas death row inmate Michael Perry. Perry and Jason Burkett were convicted (separately) of murdering three people in order to steal a red Camaro. (Burkett received a life sentence. He will be eligible for parole in 2041.) Both maintain their innocence, blaming the other. The film methodically covers the details of the case and it seems (at least to me) like they’re both guilty. Herzog isn’t particularly interest in guilt or innocence, though. He seems to be more focused on detail. He’s always been something of an unusual interviewer and ask wildly tangential questions like “describe your encounter with a squirrel” to a chaplain interviewed in the prologue (it sort of makes sense in context). Among those interviewed are the older brother of one of the victims, the sister and daughter of one of the other victims, Burkett’s father (also serving life in prison), Burkett’s wife (who met and married him since he’s been incarcerated), a longtime death row employee, and the residents on Conroe, Texas.

Herzog declares early on that he is against the death penalty, but never turns the film into a polemic on why capital punishment is bad. Instead he tries to tell a human story and he succeeds. To counter-balance the many anti-execution voices, you have the woman whose brother and mother were murdered. She says that after Perry’s execution (um… spoiler?) she felt a great sense of relief. I personally found the interviews with Perry to be kind of chilling. He has no remorse (of course he maintains his innocence) and is disturbingly upbeat. He attributes this to faith in Christianity. I’m not so sure. Burkett seems more cognizant of how he has ruined his life, but still won’t admit guilt either. There are heartbreaking scenes in this film, as you might expect. The former junkie older brother of one of the victims talks about how his brother (“the good one” according to many) had so much potential before being murdered. Burkett’s father talks (from prison) about the guilt over his failures as a parent since both of his sons are now incarcerated as well, one of them likely to never be released. I can’t see Into the Abyss swaying anyone’s opinion one way or the other. What I do think it can do is remind people that there are PEOPLE at the center of this issue. It’s not just an abstract issue debated on CNN. It’s people’s lives, on either side.

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