Wednesday, September 14, 2011

TIFF Review 2011: "Into The Abyss"

(USA, 2011, 87 minutes)
Directed by: Werner Herzog

In October 2001, Sandra Stotler was murdered in her home in the small town of Conroe, Texas, for the senseless reason that there was a red Camaro in her garage that the killers wanted very badly.

After leaving the premises to dump her body, her killers returned to take the automobile and found the gate locked. They happened upon two young men in the woods (one of them was Stotler’s son Adam), murdered them for the remote control to the gate, and went on a joyride in the Camaro before being captured by police after a shoot-out in a mall parking lot. Jason Burkett received a life sentence and Michael Perry was sentenced to death.

“Into The Abyss”, as one would assume from the not-terribly subtle Nietzchian reference, aspires to more than a rote procedural intended to push one’s buttons and manufacture outrage (although given the circumstances of the crime, a dearth of outrage shouldn’t be a problem to any sane viewer). That’s because it’s yet another compelling, poignant, and patently unique study from TIFF’s favorite versatile stalwart, Werner Herzog, who brings it town on day one only a year after his stunning “Cave Of Forgotten Dreams” (in 3D!).

Herzog interviews Perry, then twenty-eight, from behind the plexiglass partition at the Texas prison where he will be put to death by lethal injection just a week later. Curiously relaxed, well-spoken amidst a hearty twang, and flashing a toothy grin that makes him look at least a decade younger, Perry expresses little in the way of regret but professes his belief in Christ and is convinced paradise awaits.

Burkett is a bit more solemn and carries the weight of his crimes (Perry was the first to confess). His father is a career criminal serving a 40-year sentence of his own in the same prison. Burkett Sr. testified at his own son’s trial, pleading for understanding and blaming his own parental neglect and poor example. It worked: Burkett got off with a life sentence. I’ll come back to him later.

Of course, equal screen time is given to the victims’ surviving family members: one has to admire the composure of Lisa Stotler-Balloun, whose mother and brother were so cruelly murdered. “My world was ripped out from beneath”, she states with clarity that doesn’t dilute the ferocity of her wounds. “Our lives are empty.”

There are other memorable personalities along the way, among them the prison chaplain who revels in the memory of having saved a squirrel’s life and how his favorite golf course is proof of the divine, a local dirt bag who knew the convicts and boasts of reporting to work despite having been stabbed with a screwdriver.

The most affecting subject for this viewer was a former guard who assisted in the execution of over 120 inmates, who eventually had enough and quit, but is still clearly haunted by what he has done. “No one has the right to take another life”.

And for flat-out bonkers weird the third act is completely stolen by one Melyssa Thompson-Burkett – do note the last name—who married Burkett in prison even though she knew he was a convicted murderer, and via some unexplained cloak-and-dagger and smuggling from within the corrupt system, holds up an ultrasound image of their then-unborn child. Artificial insemination? She’s not talking…

As with his other documentaries, the ever-venerable director assays the roles of observer and empathetic listener, his (much-parodied) serene Bavarian intonations being his signature tool in getting his subjects to reveal much—perhaps too much—and despite his prodigious skills as a filmmaker, never resorts to creative editing, gimmicky juxtaposition, or voice-over editorializing to make a political point. Quite remarkable when one considers that the longest time he spent with any of his onscreen subjects was just under an hour.

Which is not to be misread as a cop-out: Herzog was very clear in an interview that he didn’t intend “Into The Abyss” to be an “issue” film, arguing “pro” or “con” on the subject of capital punishment. He disagrees with the practice (“respectfully” he qualifies, ever polite), and only ever states onscreen, once, his firm belief “that human beings should not be executed.”
Herzog has announced he will expand the film for its TV broadcast later next year, which he promises to be more “coherent”. Some have already criticized that it looks like any average episode of A&E filler they’re so wrong), but the point here is that…well, here is no point. Some things, esp. human behavior, are just too complex and utterly baffling, leaving wounds and questions that impossible to resolve.

© 2011 Robert J. Lewis