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May 2, 2018

Into the Abyss

by Franz Patrick


Into the Abyss (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★

When Michael Perry and Jason Burkett were teenagers, they broke into Sandra Stotler’s home, killed her, and attempted to dispose of her lifeless body in a nearby lake. The two teenagers were eventually caught by the police and convicted of the murder. Perry and Stotler were also suspected of murdering Adam Stotler, Sandra’s son, and Jeremy Richardson, Adam’s friend, but were never convicted. Director Werner Herzog had the unique opportunity to interview Perry, due to be executed via lethal injection in eight days, and talk about what had occurred in the Stotler home as well as his thoughts about being put to death by the state of Texas.

“Into the Abyss” could have easily taken an obvious path of being about the crime because it certainly has the necessary elements to make a completely engrossing material: the crime scene videos, the lieutenant in charge of the case, Perry and Burkett, as well as the victims’ families, and residents around town. However, under Herzog’s thoughtful direction, it is actually more about the emotions experienced by those affected by the sudden and irrevocable loss of lives. It also works as piece on why perhaps capital punishment is never the right choice.

The documentary offers powerful physical images and it isn’t afraid to use them. One of the saddest involves a cemetery containing rows upon rows of graves in which the crosses that protrude from the ground have no names inscribed on them, just numbers, as if to imply that the convicted men and women, once living, had no identities and not at all important to be remembered. I wondered if this was a right thing to do even if none of the families of the deceased wanted nothing to do with them. The more haunting images come from the crime scene videos. There is a real sense of dread in seeing the blood smeared across the floor, furnitures, and ceiling. It is almost like placing us in a set of a grizzly horror movie only the blood and the violence that had occurred there were real.

The film provides powerful mental images, too. So much detail is included in the crime scene videos that it is possible for us to create a relatively accurate mental image of what had happened there. That mental picture is shaped continually by listening to the interviews. In turn, the material succeeds in allowing us to become almost like secondhand detectives, trying to wade through the facts and opinions and formulating our own conclusions of what might have happened.

Furthermore, by allowing the people being interviewed to speak freely in the sense that the conversations don’t always have to be about the crime or one’s reaction to it, we learn a little bit about the interviewees as living, breathing individuals such as how they think, what they value, and their perception of themselves. The first interview with Revered Richard Lopez, for instance, is surprisingly moving because he starts to talk about what he does on his spare time which eventually leads to his opinion about the death penalty. It is admirable that Herzog is willing to ask the difficult and awkward questions, sometimes pushing just enough to get a more precise answer, but he always treats his subjects with respect.

Insightful and full of purpose, “Into the Abyss” takes a controversial topic that is capital punishment and makes it accessible—humanistic—by showing us that being incisive and showing sympathy need not be mutually exclusive. Everyone in the film demands our attention because all of them are given a fair chance to express their pain.

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