Into The Abyss: A Tale Of Death, A Tale Of Life* Review

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  • Into The Abyss: A Tale Of Death, A Tale Of Life film still


Moving and thought-provoking in equal measure. A Herzog doc of the highest order.

In 2001, a Texas housewife named Sandra Stotler was making cookies when the doorbell rang. Stotler was murdered, shot twice with a shotgun before being dumped in a lake. As she did not have the keys to her red Camaro, the killers waited for her son to return. They then led him, and a friend, to a forest and killed them both, too.

It is unusual for a documentary to announce at the outset that the director’s mind is already made up. Coming from most filmmakers, this might invite charges of bias. From Werner Herzog, it is a challenge. "I don’t have to like you," Herzog tells death row convict Michael Perry, instantly wiping the grin off his face. "But I don’t believe human beings should be executed."

Herzog could have chosen one of many controversial convictions to make a compelling argument against the death penalty, parading faulty evidence, police corruption and pitiful suspects. It can be assumed that his largely liberal audience would already be sympathetic to his cause.

Instead, with Into the Abyss he chooses a case of mindless, callous, brutality and obvious guilt. Interviewing Perry and Jason Burkett, both convicted of the crime, Herzog doesn’t challenge their pleas of innocence, their recollection of events or their motives. He is not, it seems, particularly interested in the truth. His interest, as usual, is in the human story.

Despite inches of shatterproof glass, Herzog probes his subjects with that whispering delivery that accentuates our complicity. He asks Burkett’s father – himself a convict – what it was like to once be handcuffed to his son in a prison van, their skin touching. He tells Perry he acted like a ‘tough man’ when fleeing the police, with uncertain irony.

These shared confidences are uncomfortable enough, but they offer little in the form of post-mortem rationalisation. The convicted killers have their stories of poverty, neglect, abuse and delinquency, but Herzog renders Conroe, Texas, as a town where tragedy is commonplace.

Stotler’s daughter recites a litany of deaths and suicides that had befallen her before her mother and brother were brutally murdered. Her own hardship, and her balanced and rational demeanour, demolishes easy sympathy for the killers on the basis of their upbringing. And she is unapologetic in her defence of the death penalty.

Like many of Herzog’s films, there is a thread to Into the Abyss about the natural world and our place within it. The film is bookended by interviews with two individuals whose employment has brought them into traumatic, first-hand contact with the process of execution.

Both talk of the solace they take in nature, hinting at the need for humans to see good in the world and treat life as a precious gift. It is that spirit, Herzog argues, that should prevail.

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