Dead men talk­ing

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Filmreviews -

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.

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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

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