I’m a sucker for a good true crime story, and have probably watched more episodes of “48 Hours Mystery” and “Dateline” than would be considered healthy. But even better than shows like those is a good true crime feature film. “The Thin Blue Line” and “Paradise Lost” are two movies that play out even better than the best fiction, and went on to actually change history and the lives of its subjects.
Werner Herzog’s “Into the Abyss” is an odd sort of true crime documentary, less interested in investigating the guilt or innocence of its subjects than it is in documenting the effects a truly thoughtless crime has on everyone involved, from the perpetrators and the cops who catch them, to the victims’ families, and almost everyone in between.
The crime in question was committed in 2001 by Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, two teenagers in Conroe, Texas, a town outside of Houston. Their original intent was to spend the night at a friend’s house and then steal his mother’s Camaro while everyone was asleep. Things didn’t go as planned, and by the end of the evening, a 50-year-old mother and two teenage boys were dead.
All for a Camaro.
The details of the crime are laid out pretty graphically via a lot of crime scene footage shot by the police, although just how the whole night played out isn’t explained in the clearest of ways.
Michael Perry eventually got the death penalty and Jason Burkett got a life sentence, and Herzog interviews both of them in jail, Perry a mere eight days before he was scheduled for execution. Both of them deny their guilt, basically blaming the other for the ultimate crime.
Why Burkett got off with a life sentence is made pretty clear. His father–who is also in jail–spoke at his sentencing, pleading for his son’s life. That won over the jury. It is alluded to that Perry’s family wasn’t as supportive, but other than that, Herzog doesn’t go into just why Perry ended up on death row while his friend did not. And this is a little frustrating.
Again, Herzog’s intent here isn’t really to document a crime, or argue for the guilt or innocence of the people involved, but the imbalance in the narrative, with much more focus on Burkett than on Perry, harms the film.
Some of the other subjects interviewed by Herzog–who never appears on camera, and whose voice is only heard when asking his subjects questions–include members of the victims’ families; a death row pastor; a former death row guard; friends of the victims and killers; and, most spooky of all, a woman who ended up marrying Jason Burkett from behind bars.
Herzog gets his opinion about the death penalty out of the way quickly, stating that he’s against it, but that doesn’t mean he has to like the person who’s on death row, so the movie isn’t really an “issue film” either. Still, it would be hard to come away from a viewing feeling really positive about the state of capital punishment in this country.
In fact, it’s hard to come away from “Into the Abyss” feeling positive about much of anything; it’s pretty depressing. Yet, the film is subtitled “A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life,” and some glimmers of hope do emerge. Ultimately, life itself, both as a force of nature, (random encounters with wildlife dramatically affect some of the subjects in the film), and in the very human will to survive, prevails, even in the face of man’s–and the law’s–inhumanity to man.