Monday, October 17, 2011

Into the Abyss - Chicago International Film Festival

Into the Abyss, the new documentary from Werner Herzog is an absorbing study of the people who were directly affected by a triple homicide that occurred in Conroe, Texas in the year 2000. While Herzog is clearly against the death penalty ("I don't have to like you," he tells the death row convict Michael Perry, pictured above, "but I don't believe in killing another man."), yet this is not a simple piece of work arguing for the abolishment of capital punishment. Rather it is a remarkable film that studies this event from many angles; each of the people interviewed is given their due and their remarks - as well as their emotions - combine to give us a sense of the complexities of life and the unforgettable finality of death.

Herzog, who we hear in his charming German accent, appears just off-screen in the filmed interviews. He opens the film with a short prologue, speaking with Rev. Richard Lopez, the prison chaplain. Lopez is filmed in a state cemetery, where those killed on death row will be buried if no family claims the body. The shot of the crosses that mark the graves of these individuals is a striking one- - the crosses only bear a series of numbers, which we are left to figure out.

Lopez at one point tells Herzog how he loves to spend time on the golf course and see the various animals, such as deer and squirrels, run around the landscape. "Tell me a story about a squirrel," Herzog asks and Lopez comes up with a very touching tale about how he saved the life of two squirrels by hitting the brake on his golf cart just seconds before he would have run over the animals. Lopez continues with his thoughts on life and death and actually starts to shed a few tears as he shares his thoughts. It's a unique moment in a film filled with many of them.

Along the way, Herzog interviews the criminals as well the relatives of the victims. The interview with Perry takes place on death row, only eight days before he was scheduled to die by lethal injection in 2010, a decade after the crime. Wide-eyed and surprisingly outgoing (he tells of going on a canoe trip in the Everglades when he was young), Perry maintains his innocence, saying he got mixed up with the wrong guy.

That guy is Jason Burkett (above photo), who felt sorry for Perry at one point and let him live in his trailer. Burkett, who was not given the death penalty, but instead a life sentence, comes across as a more serious person in his interview than Perry, whose aloofness is almost comical. Burkett also admits his guilt, while Perry does not.

Perhaps the most remarkable interview is with Lisa Stoulter-Balloun, whose mother and brother were two of the victims. At first glance, she is calm as she remembers these family members whom she clearly loved deeply. But as she reveals more of her life's experiences (which I will not get into here), she starts to lose her composure. Her story is terribly sad and her interview is remarkably gripping.

Other mesmerizing moments include interviews with the father of Burkett who is himself serving a 40-year sentence and a memorable sequence with a former head of the death row detail at the prison. This man oversaw 125 lethal injections and describes in great detail how his team would strap the killer on the gurney. He took no pleasure in this, as he was simply doing his job. Yet one day something happened that made him change his mind and he relates how he came to leave his position.

All of these interviews are handled with great dignity by Herzog, who asks questions that are always direct and sometimes quite powerful. Those interviewed are at ease with the director, which of course, yields many intimate moments. The film flows beautifully in its kaleidoscopic look at the ways many lives intertwine as a result of this crime.

This is an outstanding film that studies a subject most of us do not - or would rather not - discuss in great detail. There have been films made before about murderers and the victims, but few as elegantly incisive as Into The Abyss.

Into The Abyss will be shown at the Chicago International Film Festival at 6:15 PM on October 18.

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