INTO THE ABYSS: A TALE OF DEATH, A TALE OF LIFE (Werner Herzog, 2011)
IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at Third St., 212-924-7771
Lincoln Plaza Cinema, 1886 Broadway at 63rd St., 212-757-2280
Opens Friday, November 11
Upon meeting convicted murderer Michael James Perry on Death Row eight days before the twenty-eight-year-old was going to be executed by the state of Texas, master filmmaker Werner Herzog tells him, “I have the feeling that destiny, in a way, has dealt you a very bad deck of cards. It does not exonerate you, and when I talk to you, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I have to like you, but I respect you, and you are a human being, and I think human beings should not be executed.” After explaining his personal view on capital punishment, Herzog then lets the rest of the compelling documentary Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life play out like a police procedural as he investigates how and why two teenage boys murdered three people in October 2001. Herzog opens the film by speaking with Death House chaplain Rev. Richard Lopez in a potter’s field graveyard, then follows that with four sections that detail the crime, the community in which it occurred, and the family members on both sides of the law affected by the grisly, senseless murders. Herzog divides the film into four primary chapters — “The Crime,” “The Dark Side of Conroe,” “Time and Emptiness,” and “A Glimmer of Hope” — as he talks with the often smiling Perry and his cohort, Jason Aaron Burkett; Lt. Damon Hall, who shares the specific aspects of the murders of Sandra Stotler, her seventeen-year-old son, Adam, and Adam’s friend Jeremy Richardson, supplemented by original crime-scene video; Charles Richardson, Jeremy’s older brother; Lisa Stotler-Balloun, Adam’s sister, who has seen more than her fair share of loss; Melyssa Thompson-Burkett, who fell in love with Burkett after he was incarcerated; Delbert Burkett, Jason’s stepfather, who is also behind bars; and Captain Fred Allen, who oversaw executions in the Huntsville prison. Herzog asks penetrating but not leading questions that get the subjects to talk openly and honestly about the crime and its aftermath and their lives in general, many of which seem trapped in a vicious cycle of violence, jail, poor education, and other endless hardships. Into the Abyss is a powerful film that, because of Herzog’s extremely sensitive handling of an extremely controversial topic, is not nearly as polemical or political as it could have been. Into the Abyss, which was the opening-night gala selection of the recent “Doc NYC” festival, opens November 11 at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza.