Master documentarian Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World) adds a third dimension to the death penalty debate with his latest work Into the Abyss.

It’s not that I don’t understand people who support the death penalty. Feel free to endorse its continued use and argue that it’s a deterrent (not true), that it’s only used to punish heinous crimes (there are worse crimes that get lesser punishments) and that there is an effective system of checks and balances to ensure that only guilty people get executed (there’s not).

Arguing these points means that you’re wrong, but not necessarily morally bankrupt.

I just don’t understand anyone who likes and advocates it. It’s the cheerleaders that confuse and enrage me, as they should any sane person: the people who applaud Rick Perry’s execution record at the Republican debates, or those that seek to make it easier to execute someone and harder to appeal a death sentence. With so many posthumous exonerations, examples of judicial misconduct and its disproportionate use on those who cannot afford legal counsel, how can you be proud of it?

But there’s another side that gets lost in the crossfire. Master documentarian Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World) adds a third dimension to the debate with his latest work Into the Abyss.

Telling the story of the men convicted of a triple homicide and its effects on the families and community of Conroe, Texas, the film humanizes the death penalty in a way that hasn’t been seen since Dead Man Walking.

Into the Abyss tells the story of Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, the two young men convicted of a 2001 triple homicide. The primary motive was allegedly theft—the two men were known to want the victims’ car and were seen driving around in it shortly after the murders. Herzog speaks to both Perry and Burkett as they serve their respective sentences: Burkett serving life, Perry awaiting execution.

We meet Perry a mere eight days before his scheduled execution on July 1, 2010.

Herzog remains neutral on their innocence or guilt (The two blame each other, never a good sign). The focus is instead on the effects of the crime and the subsequent trial on friends, family and larger community of Conroe. Virtually everyone we meet has no difficulty believing that Perry and Burkett are guilty, and a shocking amount of them have served time themselves. For the victims’ families this is just the latest in a long string of tragedies that includes suicide, vehicular homicide and pancreatic cancer. Burkett’s father, also incarcerated for life, has his own regrets and believes that he could have done more to stop his son’s path down this road.

Into the Abyss is not a film with a strict anti-death penalty message—even those who are not fans of our current justice system will find few flaws in the evidence against the two men—but rather one that forces us to examine our own position. After leaving the theater, death penalty opponents will have to justify letting people like these two live, while supporters will have to justify killing those who are victims in their own right.

OPENS | 11.11.11



Comments are closed.