Legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog embedded himself in small town Texas to make this tragic and beautiful study of capital punishment.
In 2001, two teenage boys from Conroe, Texas, were convicted of murdering three people in order to get their hands on a red Chevrolet Camaro, a vehicle they were in possession of for 72 hours before being arrested, following a shoot out with police.
One of the boys, Michael Perry, received a death sentence. The other, Jason Burkett, was spared the same fate after a tearful courtroom plea from his father, who is also serving a life sentence in prison.
Into The Abyss opens on an interview Herzog did with Perry a week before the state of Texas ended his life and if it weren’t for the setting and the expositional titles, Perry could be any goofy American twenty-something. This instantly dispels any notions we have about the ‘monsters’ that commit violent crimes and takes us on a journey ruminating about what societal issues open up a space for these characters to emerge.
The film sees Herzog embedded in the case through disturbing and heartrending interviews with the killers, the people of Conroe that were either related to or associated with the killers and victims, a policeman that worked on the case, the reverend from the Death House, and an ex-executioner.
Linking the interviews are Herzog’s idyllic images of the Conroe’s landscape, roads and wildlife. These juxtapose starkly with the grainy and handheld police crime scene videos that expose the aftermath of the murders, replete with the family home spattered with blood and bodies dumped in neighbouring lakes and brush.
The thorough detail of the piece in the variety of sources, opinions and images shot in such an intimate and immediate way - either static close-ups and mid-shots, or paced handheld document -combined with the Herzog’s signature long takes creates plenty of room to make one’s own decisions on the matter at hand.
The ‘abyss’ of the title could refer to many aspects of the documentary - either Conroe itself, where God is ever-present but life is so cheap; or the abyss of our fellow humans that would kill us in cold blood for our possessions, or because they are employed by the state to do so.
Visit here for details of Into The Abyss screening at Cornerhouse in Manchester.