Death is one of Werner Herzog’s favorite subjects, so what happens when he makes a whole movie about it? This.
Dir. Werner Herzog, 2011, 107 min, Viewed via Netflix Instant
Despite my immense love of all things Werner Herzog, I put off watching this movie for a long time. Too long. I think I was a little bit afraid of it. In the past, the man has turned out so many masterful films that have death as some kind of undercurrent, that I was afraid that a movie from him all about death would make my head explode from philosophical overload. It turns out that such fears were unfounded. Make no mistake, Into the Abyss is a great film, but it’s not nearly the great film it could have been.
Herzog is generally unafraid to go for the thematic kill, but he pulls his punches in some ways here. In fact, this is the most un-Herzogian I think I’ve ever seen the man be. For one thing, he’s never in front of the camera, nor does he even narrate the film. He’s still an active presence, since we hear him asking questions during interviews, but it’s just not the same. He has less of a philosophical thesis to convey here, and is instead asking the viewer to mull over very general ideas about life, death, crime, and capital punishment, as they relate to a single case.
The movie follows those affected by a triple homicide that took place back in 2001, and the last days of one of the perpetrators, Michael Perry, who has been sentenced to death. Perry and his friend Jason Burkett murdered three people in the course of stealing some cars to take a joyride. Both men deny their own responsibility in the killings, blaming it on the other. Burkett escaped death row thanks to an impassioned plea on the stand from his father, who is also an imprisoned felon. Herzog doesn’t focus on the question of their guilt, though. He’s more interested in how the players involved have been affected by these events.
Herzog talks to Perry, Burkett, Burkett’s father, Burkett’s wife, the family of the victims, law enforcement who handled the case, and several people who work on death row, as well as residents of the small Texas town in which everything went down. Using police footage and recollections of officers, he meticulously recreates the circumstances of the killings. Then he investigates the environment in which this tragedy took place, delving into the backgrounds of Perry and Burkett to figure out what motivated this senselessness.
The answer is both strangely pat and rather chilling: the did it because they were stupid and impulsive. There seemed to be no maliciousness involved at all. Perry and Burkett were of the sort of frame of mind that, in the moment, murder looked like a viable solution to their problems. It doesn’t even look like sociopathy; just an attitude of heedless nihilism. It makes sense in Burkett’s case given that he came from an utterly broken home life. Perry is harder to pin down. We never meet his parents, or hear details of what his life was like from him. It’s a troubling enigma.
It’s an answer that there is no answer. Life is random, death is random, and the people in this case can attest to that. The sister of one of the victims lost several other family members in that same short space of time. She presses on for the sake of her children, even though her lack of understanding of it all has driven her to near-crippling despair. These people have all looked (wait for it) into the abyss, and it’s looked back at them, and they are here to show us what that does to a person.
Even people only tangentially related to the case live in a world of fragile mortality. One man recounts how Burkett once very nearly murdered him during a petty argument. Of course, he also relates getting stabbed in the chest with a very long screwdriver, so who knows how much of the truth he’s telling. In fact, many of the interviewees have questionable honesty. Perry tells of the time he saw monkeys swinging through the Florida everglades.
Herzog is against the death penalty. He’s says so upfront right at the beginning. This isn’t a polemic, though. If it were, he probably would have gone with a subject who looks way less obviously guilty than Perry. His point is that, while Perry is probably a murderer, he’s still a human being, and Herzog believes that entitles him to a measure of respect. Herzog models this respect in the film itself, allowing people to have their various opinions without comment on his part. Life is too complicated to make such judgments, seems to be his message.
Perhaps that’s why Herzog keeps his own voice out of the proceedings. Maybe seeing all these disparate points of view bouncing about is the point. All is random. One man is put to death for a murder; another man only gets jail time. There’s no rhyme or logic to it. That’s the death penalty, and it’s a good enough argument against its existence right there.
But I can’t help that feel that this robs the movie of the power it might have had otherwise, if Herzog had been willing to tie everything together somehow. It’s still terrific, unquestionably one of the best documentaries from last year. It just feels like it could have used a period, when all it has is an ellipsis. One could say that ellipsis are all that you’re going to get out of life, but leaving out some form of finality feels odd for a movie about death.