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  Into the Abyss


Director Werner Herzog (2011)

Into the Abyss opens with the chaplain of the Polunsky Death House in Texas talking into the camera about squirrels. He’s a golfer, you see, and when he’s riding his buggy round the course and a squirrel runs out in front he stops the buggy. He likes squirrels, he smiles, and wouldn’t want to kill one. But when it comes to his job at the Death House, well, he says with tears in his eyes, there’s nothing he can do to stop a person being killed.

He does, though, ask if he might hold their foot while they are on the gurney, and he will hold their foot if they let him. This is strange, and conjures up some notion of a submissive Christian ritual. But we later realise that four men are required to hold the feet and arms of the condemned to prevent them squirming in the straps as the lethal injection is administered.

Behind the chaplain there is row upon row of gleaming white crosses to mark the graves of those executed. Where they couldn’t find out the name there is a number etched. They are like the war dead, and in Texas this is something like a war.

The chaplain glances over his shoulder at the graves. They are just people who made bad choices, he says.

Michael Perry has been taught about bad choices on some sort of outward bound programme for young offenders. He’d forgotten to zip up his bag in the canoe and his kit had got wet, and that was meant to tell him that that his actions, or failure to act, had consequences.

But the river was full of alligators that might eat you; and there were bugs, so many you could snatch handfuls out of the air; and then they were attacked by monkeys, a whole load of them. Out there, he seems to be saying, you could make all the right choices and still get into trouble.

So he asks to go home. But he doesn’t have a home. So Jason Burkett puts him up the rickety old trailer where he lives, and that’s when the two become friends.

Following a confusing sequence of events involving the bungled theft of a flash car, Perry and Burkett, then aged 19, are convicted of the murder of Sandra Stotler, her son Adam and his friend Jeremy Richardson. Despite denying the charge Burkett gets a life sentence and Perry lands up in the Polunsky Death House.

They are the subjects of Into the Abyss, which is in many ways Werner Herzog’s In Cold Blood. People have criticised Into the Abyss on similar grounds to In Cold Blood, a book in which Truman Capote, it is said, in trying to understand the killers, glorifies them. He gets too close. Especially to the one called, in a weird coincidence, Perry.

In the documentary Herzog, too, tries to understand his Perry, tries to piece together a convincing narrative. As with In Cold Blood it makes for an astonishing journalistic exercise as fictional techniques interweave with what few facts we can be sure about.

In one long, harrowing scene we can witness Herzog at work. Fred Allen, a former captain of the Death House, tells his story. How, until his breakdown, he presided over more than 120 executions, as frequently as two a week. “That was tiresome,” he says in a crushing understatement.

Behind him you can see a clock on the wall. The minute hand flips forwards or backwards with each edit revealing the seams of the narrative Herzog has carefully stitched together to generate the most powerful effect.

It is a power is used in a good cause. Apart from the lazy title Into the Abyss is a fine polemic against capital punishment, and when Herzog dedicates it to “the victims of violent crime” you know he’s including the inmates of death row in that.

April 10, 2012

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