Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Into the Abyss

(USA,UK, Germany, 2011)

Werner Herzog’s film is about the death penalty, which he opposes, but it’s really about wasted lives, and ruined lives.
The wasted lives go beyond just the two human cesspools he interviews in prison, one on death row, one who might make parole in 2041, when he’s sixty. Their names are Michael Perry and Jason Burkett. They lived their blighted lives in Conroe, Texas. One day in 2001, they decided they wanted to drive around in a really cool red Camaro. So they killed a woman named Sandra Stotler with a shotgun, took her to a lake in the Camaro, and dumped her. In one of the many agonizing scenes, we see police video of where she died. She was making cookies. A bowl of dough, a cookie sheet with six lumps on it. And here come the animals, interrupting the life of this innocent woman, leaving a trail of blood. It makes you weep.
Later they lured her son and his friend into the wood and killed them, too. No real good reason, not even as good as wanting the Camaro. They just did it. They soon got into a chase and shootout with the police. Both were shot, but both survived, unfortunately, thus making it necessary for all the rest of us to have to deal with this garbage year after year after year.

One of them, anyway. One is dealt with forever, buried in an unnamed grave in Huntsville, sort of the American capital of capitol punishment.
What strikes me again and again is that, aside from the Stotler family, all these people are the reasons prisons were built, the Perry family and the Burkett family and the families of all their friends. Perennial jailbirds, to a man, and (though we don’t see them) woman, too, probably. Burkett’s father has done five stretches in prison, is there now, will never get out. They are all a part of the more-or-less permanent criminal underclass, probably reaching back four or five generations, and likely to stretch that many generations into the future if they’re allowed to mate. And I can’t see anything to do about it. So those are the wasted lives.

The ruined lives are exemplified by Lisa Stolter-Balloun, who lost what little was left of her family on that day: mother and brother. It shattered her, completely shattered her. To this day she won’t have a telephone, because no good news has ever come over it.
She went to the execution, ten years later. Perry looked at her and read his final words, in which he forgave people for what they were about to do. “Father forgive them …” “He forgave me,” she says, incredulously.

(Both men maintain their innocence, which I don’t believe for a nanosecond. The evidence was conclusive, they confessed, and you don’t see the Innocence Project flocking to their cells.)

Of course you have to confront your own feelings about the death penalty. No minds are likely to be changed, and I don’t think that was Herzog’s intention. He deliberately chose stone, senseless spree killers who were certainly guilty, and explored their minds and the lives of the people around them. This is no The Thin Blue Line.
Me? Though I have no problem with killing bad people, per se, the death penalty in this country is so terminally fucked up, arbitrary, and subject to mistakes that I can’t support it. It deters nothing (other than recidivism from the man executed), it solves nothing, it brings back nothing. Perry says this, and it’s one of the few things he said that I believe. The best that can be said for it is that it provides satisfaction to many of the loved ones of those who were murdered. The main reason we insist on doing it, though it can take 25, 30 years or longer to accomplish, is that it makes most of us feel better.

But I will shed no tear for Perry, and I wouldn’t for Burkett, who I think should have been in the next cell on death row. The roll of the dice, and two sympathetic women on his jury are all that saved him.

It’s a very memorable film. I salute Herzog for his interviews. I will remember the prison padre, standing in the cemetery and breaking down as he recalls the hundreds of men he walked to the gurney. But even more, the man who supervised around 125 executions in Huntsville. He was in favor of the death penalty, and felt that it if was going to be done, it should be done right. He devoted himself to that. Then came Karla Faye Tucker. He strapped her down, they squirted the juice into her, and shortly after he found he couldn’t stop shaking. He underwent a conversion and quit his job. If only for that reason, you can’t help wondering if executions are a good idea. This man didn’t administer the drugs, so technically he didn’t kill anybody, but it finally broke him.

Lastly, the cherry on top of this shit sundae. Burkett got married to his lawyer, a sweet-faced young woman with no obvious bugs in the attic, who is convinced of his innocence. And guess what? She’s pregnant! Isn’t that sweet? And yet, and yet … there have been no conjugal visits … so what gives, Werner wants to know? She’s coy about it, doesn’t want to get anyone in trouble, but Werner dopes it out. Seems that semen has been smuggled out of the prison, somehow. Now the wee bairn will get to hug his daddy … when he’s 30 years old. If he makes parole, a highly dubious possibility.

One final personal note. One of the losers in this story lives for a while in the little town of Cut and Shoot, Texas, a few miles east of Conroe. Yes, there really is such a place. I know, because I’ve been there, and one of my best friends lived there for about ten years. Stories differ about how the name came about, but it seems it was a church squabble about something. Things got hot, but there was no real cutting or shooting.