When Judge Gordon Sullivan heard this title, he wondered if Werner Herzog would be paying a visit.
"It's a film about death."—Werner Herzog
I was initially very skeptical of Werner Herzog's Into the Abyss. First off, there's that title, which is overblown, even for a director who gave us The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner or The Dark Glow of the Mountains. More importantly, Herzog has made his career (at least in documentaries) by tackling subjects others don't. Whether it's the mad ravings of a man mauled by bears (Grizzly Man) or a loving portrait of a woodworker (The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner), Herzog starts his documentaries where others would stop. Into the Abyss, however, is a documentary about prison inmates and their crimes. This is well-worn territory (see Errol Morris' excellent The Thin Blue Line for an example), and I was worried it would be an excuse for Herzog to go through the motions without adding anything substantive to the discussion. Luckily, I was wrong. Although this is hardly Herzog's best film (documentary or otherwise), it's a portrait of a crime that focuses on the remnants of crime rather than the details of what happened.
Facts of the Case
In 2000, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett apparently killed Sandra Stotler in order to steal her car. In addition, they also killed her son and his friend. Ten years later, Perry is on death row awaiting his execution in eight days for Stotler's murder, while his accomplice Burkett is sentenced to life in prison for the other murders. Herzog interviews both men, along with friends and family of the deceased to paint a vivid portrait of the effects of crime.
Enjoyment of Into the Abyss (Blu-ray) will be directly proportional to expectation. This is not quite a typical Herzog documentary, nor is it a typical procedural documentary exploring the facts of the crime.
In Into the Abyss, Herzog seems obsessed with two things. The first is the visual evidence of the crime. He replays the crime scene footage recorded by police, returns to the scenes of the crimes, and even tracks down the car that was the apparent motive for the murder. However, Herzog does not give the audience this visual material to establish the facts of the crime or build up any case against either Perry or Burkett. Though lip service is paid to describing the crime (including interviews with the investigating officer), Herzog is much more interested in the detritus left behind after the crime than he is in establishing anything about the crime itself.
Herzog's other interest is in the effects of the crime on the family members of both the victims and the perpetrators. We get interviews with relatives primarily, including the brother and sister of the victims, and Burkett's father. Together, these interviewees demonstrate the extent to which Perry and Burkett were products of a larger social group, as many of the interviewees are either in jail or have served jail time. Though Herzog doesn't linger on these facts as an explanation, it is surprising how many of the subjects for this film are criminals.
Of course, those looking for the usual Herzog touches will find a few here. Unlike Errol Morris, who seems to get people to talk by focusing intently on them and pressuring them to speak, Herzog waits patiently. This strategy works well in scenes like the opening, where he interviews the prison chaplain in charge of interacting with condemned prisoners. Herzog is also always on the lookout for small touches, like the unbaked cookies we can glimpse in the crime scene footage or the way a tree grew up through the stolen car while it was impounded. These moments are surprising and beautiful.
Unsurprisingly, this film looks pretty good on Blu-ray. The 1.78:1 AVC-encoded transfer looks especially impressive in the contemporary interview footage, with a high degree of detail and strong color saturation. The older footage looks rough, but that's an issue with the source rather than this transfer. The DTS-HD 5.1 track is a waste of the surrounds, with only the front channels (especially the center) being used. Dialogue is clean and clear out of the center channel, and the film's score is well-reproduced, though by no means a room-shaker.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you really want to know what happened to Sandra Stotler, or how it happened that Perry got the death penalty but Burkett did not, this is not the documentary for you. Though it comes out in interviews that both men blame the other as the primary force behind the killings, Herzog is completely uninterested in following those questions up. While I appreciated Herzog's approach, it was occasionally frustrating to be watching and not sure exactly what the differences between the two men were, or even how they each explained what had happened.
Just as significantly, this is not a film for those who dislike the death penalty. Though Herzog makes it clear in the first few minutes that he too is opposed to capital punishment, this is not a propaganda documentary. Though Herzog does interview a prison captain who decided to quit his job on death row (at great personal expense), Herzog provides none of the kind of damning evidence of the system that capital punishment opponents usually traffic in.
Sadly, there are no extras on this disc aside from the film's trailer. I gather from interviews with Herzog that the project did not start out as a portrait of the Stotler murders, but that focus evolved as shooting progressed. It would have been nice to hear more about that from Herzog. Some extra interview footage would also have been nice, especially any that addressed how the two defendants came to have such disparate sentences.
It's not the documentary that will cement Herzog's reputation, but Into the Abyss is a quiet, moving little film that deals with the repercussions of crime in ways that few documentaries would recognize.It's highly recommended to fans of Herzog's recent work, and worth a rental to those interested in death row more generally. Sadly, the lack of extras makes anything more than a rental difficult to recommend.
Unlike Perry and Burkett, Into the Abyss is not guilty.
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