For the first fifteen minutes of Werner Herzog’s new documentary, Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life, we keep waiting for a smoking gun, that long-buried piece of evidence that will exonerate Michael James Perry, a Montgomery man sentenced to death in 2003 for triple homicide. Given two other recent nonfiction features that make a vigorous case for the wrongfully convicted, this expectation is not unwarranted: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, which airs on HBO next month, is about the Arkansas men known as the West Memphis Three, who spent nearly two decades behind bars before being released last summer, and Incendiary: The Willingham Case, which opened in limited release in September, recounts the fight to posthumously prove the innocence of Cameron Todd Willingham, the Corsicana man put to death in 2004 for the alleged arson murders of his children (see “Where There’s Smoke”). Presumably, Into the Abyss, which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival on September 2—a mere five days before Governor Rick Perry’s widely criticized defense of the death penalty during a Republican presidential debate in California—will fall in line with these titles and point an outraged finger at a state that has executed 476 prisoners since 1976.
Except there is no smoking gun, no unfairly suppressed evidence, no prosecutorial misconduct. On the night of October 24, 2001, Michael James Perry and his accomplice, Jason Burkett, entered the house of Sandra Stotler, covetous of the red Camaro parked in her garage. After shooting Stotler in her doorway and then dumping her body in a lake, they returned to the gated community where she lived; waited for her son, Adam, to return home; and then lured him and his friend, Jeremy Richardson, into the woods and murdered them. (Burkett was tried separately and sentenced to life in prison.) Sidestepping Perry’s half-baked claims of innocence, Herzog—the legendary German filmmaker, who has long been fascinated, in both fiction (Aguirre, the Wrath of God, 1972) and nonfiction (Little Dieter Needs to Fly, 1998), with the extremes of human behavior—pushes beyond matters of individual justice to ask larger, more unsettling questions about our shared humanity. The result is a true outlier in a political and cultural climate that insists on black and white answers and red and blue divisions; Into the Abyss quietly asks for mercy at a time when everyone else is shouting at the top of their lungs. Initially scheduled for a commercial run in 2012, the film was rushed into theaters by its distributor last month, at Herzog’s insistence, in order to capitalize on the media attention surrounding the September execution of Troy Davis, a Georgia man whose murder conviction was widely disputed. (It has already opened in Dallas, Plano, Austin, and Houston.) The most essential Texas-centered movie of the year, Into the Abyss demands to be seen with an open heart and debated with an open mind.
Originally intended to be an episode in a series of television documentaries for the Investigation Discovery network, the film turned into a feature-length endeavor when Herzog became wholly absorbed by the case. It’s easy to see what so compelled him. On a basic level, this new effort connects to his earliest international success, the German-language Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), a borderline exploitative curio about a group of institutionalized dwarves who stage a rebellion against their keepers. As Into the Abyss lays out the facts of the Perry case, Herzog once again flirts with exploitation: we watch slow footage of the blood-flecked crime scene, and at the Polunsky Unit, in Livingston, we see the grinning, clueless-seeming Perry, who talks up a storm but expresses nothing resembling remorse. (Herzog interviewed him just once, in June 2010, eight days before he was executed.) Yet there’s no condescension here, none of the voiceover philosophizing that sometimes mars Herzog’s documentaries, like Grizzly Man (2005) and Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010). The director remains off camera, asking questions of his subjects and only occasionally expressing his opinions. His visual style is simple and graceful, posing family members alongside framed photos of their murdered loved ones and filming Perry and Burkett through the windows that separate prisoners from visitors. He follows the case into unusual corners, talking to the minister who will give Perry his last rites, the woman who began writing to Burkett in prison and then fell in love with him, and the guard once responsible for strapping death-row prisoners to the gurney in Huntsville. Gradually, Into the Abyss comes to seem less like an investigation of a crime than an anguished reckoning with a society in breakdown, a study of a tragedy that contains within it, nesting-doll-style, tragedy upon tragedy upon tragedy. Rather than bring closure to those tragedies, Herzog implies, executing Perry will serve only to multiply them.
Does the film have the power to change the minds of death-penalty proponents? Probably not. But I’m not sure that’s Herzog’s intention. Just as we’ve come to assume that legal documentaries will exonerate their subjects, we now expect works of nonfiction advocacy—whether Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine or Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me or Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job—to land their punches with sensationalistic flourish. Herzog, on the other hand, seems determined to hear every side of this story without racing to judgment. Into the Abyss spends a great deal of time with Lisa Stotler-Balloun, Sandra Stotler’s surviving stepdaughter. Midway through the film, we learn that Adam wasn’t Lisa’s brother but her nephew, whom Sandra adopted and raised as her own. Then Lisa reveals that almost every member of her family died in the space of six years because of crime or addiction or just plain lousy luck. In a more conventional movie, she would be the third-act voice of reason, the woman who wants the cycle of death to end and Perry’s life to be spared. Not quite. “Some people just don’t deserve to live,” she tells the director. She speaks with a kind of grievous calm as she describes the unburdening she felt as she witnessed Perry’s execution, on July 1, 2010.
That’s what makes Into the Abyss so resonant and mature: it recognizes how much it hurts to consider the death penalty objectively. It isn’t easy to forgive a guilty man, especially when the guilty man refuses to acknowledge his crime or seek out forgiveness. It isn’t easy to suppress the human desire for retribution. But, as Herzog subtly and poignantly insists, we can, we should, and we must.
Where There’s Smoke: The case of Cameron Todd Willingham
As documentaries go, Incendiary: The Willingham Case, which played in Austin and Dallas last fall and will be released on DVD next year, isn’t the most cinematic effort: it lacks the plainspoken visual beauty of Into the Abyss, and it occasionally gets bogged down in wonky legalese. But directors Steve Mims and Joe Bailey Jr. manage to serve up both a compelling history of Willingham’s case—he was accused of setting fire to his home in 1991 and killing his three small daughters inside—and a rousing portrait of lawyer Barry Scheck and the Innocence Project, which took up the campaign to exonerate Willingham two years after his execution. Unabashed about taking sides, Mims and Bailey come down particularly hard on Governor Perry, who has said he has no regrets about allowing Willingham to be put to death. Like the best works of investigative journalism, the movie opens your eyes and leaves your blood boiling.