Michael Perry is a subject of Herzog's lens in Into The Abyss (2011)...
"Death waits forever, it is eternal."
- Peasant, La Soufrière (1977)
There is no question of Michael Perry and Jason Burkett's innocence. In October 2001 the then-teens broke into the home of fifty-year-old nurse Sandra Stotler, having previously been turned away from her doorstep, and then murdered her for the keys to a red Camaro. The body was discarded in neighboring woodland, but the duo came unstuck when trying to re-enter the gated Highland Ranch community where she had lived. Why didn't they just take the car when disposing of the body? For this foolish oversight two further people lost their lives: Sandra's son, Adam Stotler, and his friend, Jeremy Richardson, who possessed the electronic device which would grant Perry and Burkett entry back into the estate, where they could finally steal that elusive Camaro. In three days time the killers were apprehended, following an intense shootout with police where Burkett sustained five gunshot wounds. He recieved a life sentence, but Perry - a few months his junior - was sentenced to death. Stotler had been baking cookies when the shotgun was placed to her back.
The most impressive aspect of Into The Abyss (surely the most generic of Herzog film titles; it could describe Aguirre, Wrath Of God (1972), Heart Of Glass (1976) or Grizzly Man (2005), among others) is the way in which Herzog looks to an act of inhumanity and finds two humans; humans who share remorse for their violent, senseless crimes. We walk into the film aware that it takes place on Death Row (Huntsville, Texas; still America's execution capital), and expect to be greeted by monsters. Herzog splits the narrative into six distinct chapters, bookended by a prologue and epilogue, and in the first chapter he outlines the details of Perry and Burkett's crimes, employing archival police footage, news reports and contemporary interviews. It's a horrifying chapter of unimaginable cruelty, and already our subconscious is painting images of burly, cold-eyed musclemen. Cliché has no place in reality. Burkett is mild mannered and approachable - not only articulate, but a deeply thoughtful individual. Were he behind an oak desk, as opposed to bullet proof glass, we might mistake him for a young scholar. Perry is introduced to us similarly, and we immediately warm to his boyish looks and buoyant energy. It is only when Herzog re-states the man's sentence that we remember the brutality with which he undertook Sandra Stotler's execution.
Interestingly, Perry now pleads innocence. Back in 2001 he had confessed to the murders, reportedly leading officers to the crime scene and revealing details that only the perpetrator could know. Evidence was provided to support his claims, and a jury found him guilty. As Herzog meets him, Perry is due to be executed in eight days. This is one of many contradictions - or rather, oddities - presented by Into The Abyss, which in Chapter IV (subtitled 'A Glimmer Of Hope') introduces us to Melyssa Burkett, a campaigner who fell in love with and married Jason while he was in jail. She is convinced, perhaps unreasonably, of his innocence. She speaks of him bashfully, seemingly giddy on her affection for him. I can imagine few couples as in love as these two. This observation took me surprise, as did the revelation that Melyssa is now pregnant (she's coy about the source, but artificial insemination has obviously been approved by the prison). Anyhow, back to Perry. He faces his impending death with remarkable calm, citing God as a reason for his not being afraid. "Paradise awaits one way or the other", he declares. "I tell people all the time, I'm either going home, or Home." This is yet another contradiction. If Perry's initial statements are true, and he did kill three people in cold blood, how can he still believe that God will forgive him, and allow him into heaven? If his current statement is true, why did he testify against himself all those years ago? And finally, if God is merciful and kind, as Reverend Richard Lopez suggests, why did he allow for the deaths of three innocents - why did he not heed the call of Lisa-Stotler Balloun, sister and daughter of the desceased, who also looks to God as a comfort?
That final point is of particular interest to me. Religion is a subject which I find endlessly fascinating and frustrating, and here, without even knowing it, Herzog has crafted a portrait of its infinite paradox. Every subject of the director's lens at some point underlines how God has helped them through their tribulations - including Charles Richardson, brother of the deceased Jeremy, and Delbert Burkett, father of Jason, who is also serving a life sentence for murder. Each and every one of these people sincerely believes in the small-print of their faith, and an eventual afterlife. Each of them has prayed to God, for either forgiveness or consolation. I find this confusing and intriguing. Balloun has placed all of her remaining energy into God, but was it not that very God who took from her both her mother and brother, whom she loved so dearly? I stress that this is not a topic which Herzog engages with in Into The Abyss, but rather an underlying subtext which struck me in unexpectedly profound ways. In a Q&A I attended after the film, Herzog stated that he tried to avoid explicit talk of religion at all times. When Rev. Lopez begins waxing lyrical about the marvels of God's green Earth, he diverts the man's course by simply asking; "Tell me about an encounter with a squirrel?"
Throughout all of this the director keeps himself at a distance from his subjects, never appearing before camera and always delivering his questions with concise, softly-spoken clarity. Often his approach can be dryly funny, in that most Herzog-ian of ways, such as in the scene where he lists Delbert Burkett's academic aspirations, and then details each of his five prison sentences. "What went wrong?", he innocently concludes. Somehow he elicits the most honest answers possible, and uncovers that thing which he is always looking for - ecstatic truth. This is the truth beyond mere "facts." He argues that it is through poetry that human beings can find the greatest possible truth about their existence. As the film closes on a discussion of hummingbirds, I considered that he might just be right.
Into The Abyss: A Tale Of Death, A Tale Of Life is released into UK cinemas on March 30th...