Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life (Sundance Selects, NR)

abyss 75Werner Herzog doesn’t seem terribly interested in making this anything like a mystery, despite the fact that most of the people in the film can’t seem to agree on what actually happened.

 

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I’ve long said that I like works of fiction where everyone dies in the end. While when I say this I mean for it to be taken as a joke, I am kind of serious. At the risk of giving away the endings of some of my favorite books and movies, let’s just say that I seem to like things that end like how Hamlet does. As it turns out, though, this rule of mine doesn’t apply to nonfiction. In Werner Herzog’s second great documentary of the year, Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life (his first documentary this year was the completely unrelated Cave of Forgotten Dreams), he meets the people involved in a crime that involved three murders. We, of course, don’t encounter those three who were murdered, but we meet their two killers, their families, the relatives of loved ones of the killers, friends, hangers-on, etc. The three murders aside, the amount of death in this movie is pretty astounding: Nearly everyone in the film seems to have had multiple encounters with tragic death, and it invokes a real feeling of helplessness in the viewer.

Take, for example, Charles Richardson, the older brother of one of the three victims. In addition to losing his brother to a violent crime, his sister died from being hit by a car while crossing the street to come visit him (the living brother). Toward the end of the movie, Lisa Stotler-Balloun, a relative of two of the victims, lists off the number of people who died suddenly in her family over the course of six years, and it takes her a very long time to do so. It got so bad that she now has a phobia about the phone, for fear that it’s another call to tell her someone else she’s close to has died.

Then there’s the fact that this case takes place in Conroe, Texas—Texas, of course, being a big proponent of capital punishment. The two killers are Michael James Perry and Jason Burkett; Perry’s on death row but Burkett got 40 years. Herzog gets just one interview with Perry, who has big brown eyes and an equally big smile, eight days before his scheduled execution.

The facts of the case are apparently pretty cut and dry. Herzog doesn’t seem terribly interested in making this anything like a mystery, despite the fact that most of the people in the film can’t seem to agree on what actually happened. That is to say, what the courts found and policemen tell us is never convincingly challenged. He’s more interested here in existential questions, drawing parallels, and maybe wheedling in a little social commentary. It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to determine that Herzog is questioning whether capital punishment does much to deter crime. (As an opponent of capital punishment in the general sense, it does make me wonder if that’s even its intended goal as an institution. Is it more about providing closure for the victims’ families, perhaps? Or just saving taxpayers the cost of keeping criminals in prison for the rest of their lives?)

Sometimes it is hard to follow who’s who in this movie. A lot of people are interviewed, and they’re only given one superimposition telling you who they are, so while you might know them by sight, it’s hard to keep straight who someone’s talking about at any given time. Also, some of the time Herzog as an interviewer seems more interested in talking than he is in listening. Even so, there’s a lot of mental fodder contained in Into the Abyss; more so than in most other movies I’ve seen so far this year combined. And besides, it’s as good a way as any to pass the time until this season’s other big crime documentary/rumination on capital punishment, Paradise Lost 3, comes out. | Pete Timmermann

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