Dead men talking
IN 2000, TWO teenage Texans were convicted of the murder of a 50-year-old nurse. Jason Burkett received life imprisonment; co-conspirator Michael Perry was given the death sentence.
All told, the men were suspected of a triple homicide. The motive? The acquisition of an ugly car, which they possessed for less than three days when their boasts about the multiple murders brought them to the attention of the police. Since the sentencing, each of the accused has duly pointed the finger at the other.
Werner Herzog’s latest documentary can’t match his Antarctic expedition Encounters at the End of the World for adventure.
Nor can it compete with last year’s prehistoric 3D presentation Cave of Forgotten Dreams for spectacle.
Rather, Into the Abyss (subtitled A Tale of Life, a Tale of Death in other territories) revisits one of contemporary documentary’s favourite preoccupations: the death penalty. What can the singular German film-maker bring to an already thriving subgenre? Watch and learn.
This is not a campaigning film in the conventional sense. It shares virtually no DNA with Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger’s Paradise Lost sequence or Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line. There seems virtually no question mark over Perry and Burkett’s guilt. If anything, the viewer is relieved to see them behind bars.
“I don’t have to like you,” Herzog tells Perry. “I just have to respect you.” For the writerdirector, Burkett and Perry, the latter seen here eight days before his execution, are of philosophical interest: a 21st-century variation on In Cold Blood’s drifting killers.
Their crimes are sloppily executed and frighteningly pointless. But life is cheap in their neck of the woods. Everything we come to learn about Conroe, Texas suggests that nothing pretty could ever spring from its benighted soil. Burkett’s sorrowful father, housed in the prison across the way for his own second murder rap, recalls when his own life unravelled into degradation. Other friends and relatives, we learn, are similarly incarcerated.
Herzog clinically observes the fascinating procedures on death row. Police officials recite case details. Burkett acquires a death penalty groupie wife. The prison chaplain cries against the unmarked graves. Surviving family members recall victims.
The director supplies no answers or comment: only canny, disquieting questions.
Herzog: disquieting questions