10 April 2012

Crime and Punishment

The State of Texas executed 17 people in 2010, just over a third of the total executions in the US that year, and yet almost everyone Werner Herzog talks to in his new film, Into the Abyss, from the families of victims, to the former chief of one of Texas's death row facilities, seems to be uncertain about the use of the death penalty. Most are against it.

I am a big fan of The Good Wife and I also read and watch a lot of crime and legal thrillers and one thing that is usually important is the notion of innocence. Some of the best episodes of The Good Wife involved twists where the innocent-seeming client Alicia Florrick and her firm are representing turns out to be guilty, or vice-versa. There was a great episode with a last-minute, against-the-clock death row appeal, too. Legally, of course, it doesn't matter to the law firm whether their clients are innocent or guilty (although it does help if they are innocent), but dramatically, our perceptions of innocence or lack thereof are important.

But Into the Abyss is a documentary, not a drama, and questions of guilt and innocence don't really come up; they are beside the point. In the film, Herzog profiles Michael Perry, who in 2001, at the age of 19, was convicted of murdering a 50-year-old woman, Sandra Stotler, with his friend Jason Burkett, because they wanted to steal her two fancy cars and killing her seemed to them to be the most straightforward way of doing this. Perry was sentenced to death and Burkett, who was also convicted of murdering Stotler's teenage son and a friend, is serving 40 years in jail. We find out later that it may have been Burkett's father's moving testimony in court that saved him from the death penalty.

When Herzog talks to Perry, it is eight days before his execution but Perry seems fairly calm, even though his father recently died; Perry found religion in jail and is convinced that there is something better waiting for him on the other side. Later, we see him proclaiming his innocence--he blames Burkett and Burkett blames him--but he is resigned to his fate. Herzog then allows a local detective to introduce the details of the crime and the crime scenes, and then speaks to the siblings of the victims, Jason Burkett, Burkett's father, the man who used to run the Huntsville death house and others involved with the crime, the victims or the business of putting people to death. Both men are uneducated and clearly had difficult upbringings, we learn--Burkett had a lot of medical issues and his own father was frequently in prison, where he is currently serving a life sentence. Perry had left home and was living out of a car boot until he persuaded Burkett to let him live with Burkett temporarily.

Herzog doesn't appear on camera and there is no voice-over, just a few intertitles and Herzog's interviews. He does not state his own views but then he doesn't really need to because his interviewees so often put them into their own words. Lisa Stotler-Balloun, the sister and daughter of two of the victims, is still clearly devastated about what happened to her brother and mother, the tragedy made so much worse by the fact that she lost many other close family members in tragic circumstances in the space of a few years. She hates Perry and Burkett for taking her mother and brother from her but even she states that life imprisonment would have been enough and that executing Perry wouldn't bring anyone back. The two men did something terrible and they should pay for it but not, the film argues, with their lives.

Into the Abyss is a sad film and although its subtitle is 'a tale of death, a tale of life', perhaps 'a tale of death and of miserable lives' would have been more accurate because it doesn't seem as though anyone who appears in the film has led a happy, fulfilled life. Although Herzog's opinions are evident throughout, this is no Michael Moore polemic. It is understated and moving, shot through with a raw, brutal honesty, and I really liked it.

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