Back in September, when my friend and colleague Alex Seitz-Wald, saw Werner Herzog’s death penalty documentary Into the Abyss at the Telluride Film Festival, he wasn’t particularly fond of it. But I’ve seen it twice now, and while I think there is a more politically pointed movie to be made out of some of the characters in Into the Abyss, the movie is both artistically lovely and lends an important rigor to our debates about the death penalty.
The movie centers around Michael Perry, a death row inmate who was executed in Texas this summer, Jason Burkett, who is serving life in prison for the murders they committed together, and the families of their victims. There isn’t any real question about whether Perry and Burkett are guilty, or that the people whose brothers and mother they murdered remain shattered more than a decade after the crimes were committed. And there aren’t racial disparities at play: Burkett and Perry are both white, and they murdered a white woman and two white teenagers over a mediocre convertible. In most artistic considerations of the death penalty — and in most of the cases taken up by activists — there would be some doubt about their guilt or whether the system works, and that doubt would be the basis for the arguments against the death penalty. But Perry is not only guilty, he’s reptilianly unsympathetic. After confessing to the crime, Perry maintained his innocence before his death, telling Herzog at one point during their interviews that Herzog should get out of Texas as soon as possible so they don’t execute him too. He’s a useful test of Herzog’s — and our — commitment to the idea that the state should not kill human beings. When Lisa Stotler, who lost her mother and her brother to Perry and Burkett, says that “some people just don’t deserve to live,” Perry is probably not the most effective of all possible refutations to her belief.
What the movie does very well, though, is to suggest that the death penalty is part of a larger messed-up tapestry, a world where people get stabbed with screwdrivers and go to work; where kids of school age can essentially slip off the radar of their families and the system; where a car is worth committing murder for. The movie can veer into Southern gothic, a bit. Interviewing one of Burkett’s friends from before the murder, Herzog questions him with anthropological interest about his inability to read before a prison term, and he has a tendency to put words in his subjects mouths, taking the frequent “Yes, sir” responses he gets to leading questions as actual assent. Burkett’s wife, who’s become pregnant despite the fact that she and her husband aren’t allowed to do more than kiss and hold hands during his prison bid, and insists that she isn’t a murder groupie despite some deeply odd romantic comedy notions of dating a prisoner, is decidedly unnerving.
But some of the movie’s best moments come not out of those more grotesque moments, but when Herzog manages to suggest there’s something deeply wrong with the world at large. When he has a detective who investigated the case walk him through the crime scenes, Herzog shoots the man against Crater Lake, where Perry and Burkett dumped Sandra Stotler’s body: the shot is framed so the trees surrounding the lake are reflected upside down, a vision of a world confusing and reversed. And watching Fred Allen, the former captain of the death row squad that executed Perry, talk about how he’s only become able to appreciate the world again after quitting the job is heart-rending—and probably would have made a better coda than the sloppy epilogue Herzog tacks on at the end.
Into the Abyss won’t work for everyone, and it doesn’t precisely do the work of the death penalty abolition movie. I could have watched an entire movie about Allen’s decision to give up his pension and give up the work of executions. But the death penalty is a strange thing, existing in defiance of logic or the rules of sound public policy. Some movies should make arguments. And some should make manifest the strange, powerful impulses in the American psyche.