April 14, 2012

Into the Abyss

Werner Herzog says in his film at the beggining that he opposes the death penalty. One might assume this is a film which opposes the death penalty, which campaigns against it- but if you did think that you would be wrong. What Herzog does is describe what happened in a particular case. In 2001, in Conroe, Texas, two 19 year olds, Jason Burkett and Michael Perry shot a nurse Sandra Stotler- and later her son and his friend. According to the police, the killing was motivated by Perry and Burkett's desire to steal Stotler's car. That was all that they wanted- a red sports car- and for that as the officer on the case said, three people died. By the end of the film that three becomes four, because Michael Perry was executed in July 2010. Burkett faces a forty year prison term and will be released- if he receives parole- in 2042 when he will be 59. The film describes these events and interviews the families of the victims, people who knew Burkett and Perry in Texas, the killers themselves- Perry is interviewed eight days before his execution and an interview with Burkett's current wife. Interviews with the Prison Chaplain who holds the ankle of each prisoner as the lethal injection is administered and with a former captain of the death squad at the jail are included in the film. All in all this is neither a light nor a pleasant film: its a good film.

Some critics have argued that Herzog didn't really know what he was doing with the film- that it is not polemical enough or whimsical enough. I think the film is powerful as a description rather than a political polemic. Herzog may say he is against the death penalty but this is neither an expose of a clear injustice nor is it a statistical argument. It is an observation. As such though it has an argument but it requires the viewer to switch their attention from the political to the personal context for what happens in the film. We hear plenty about the lives that the two perpetrators lived up until the murders, hear plenty about what they were like outside the jail (Jason Burkett sounds like a thug for example) and hear about their troubled up bringings (particularly Burkett's). Burkett's father is interviewed in incredibly powerful scenes- himself a convict in prison for a similar time to his son, the sheer sense of his own failure is a difficult and important thing for Herzog and the viewer to capture. When he describes the feeling of being locked to his own son in handcuffs as they leave the court house, the feeling of despair is probably the greatest I have felt in a cinema.

Likewise Herzog captures something about the families of the victims that I think we seldom do. What is left for them after a murder? It must feel like so much has gone, senselessly, into the past. Both the family members of victims we see here look and feel anguished: interestingly both are siblings and the sense of loss is palpable- almost unbearable at points. The important thing about these sections of the film is not that it does not make you feel angry- or at least did not make me feel angry- it made me feel compassion and sadness. There are two feelings on the screen during the film- when you see the Burkett's father, you feel the anguish of honesty about failure- when you see the families of the victims, you see the anguish of loss. These two very different emotions suffuse a film that really is about two types of abyss, one of sin, the other of death. Looking at it another way, what Herzog presents is a murder which has produced two devastating consequences- shame and despair.

The interviews with the two murderers fit into the rest of the film slightly askew. Reviewers have asked why Herzog didn't probe these men more- he asks questions but does not strive for a gotcha moment where the killer breaks down in tears. Nor does he probe the stories of either man. Both deny the murders now. Perry until his death insisted that a police conviction was coerced. Both blame the other man. Herzog seems clear that they did it though- even though Burkett's wife insists he did not. Neither admit to any guilt: Perry says that he feels sorry for those who have visited the atrocity of what he calls murder upon him. Burkett's father clearly does believe his son did something. Burkett's wife- a post-prison acquisition who he has hugged but not spent time with outside of prison- clearly disagrees. Some of the most uncomfortable scenes in the film involve her talking about her love for the convict. The emptiness, particularly from Perry, is terrifying but it stands between the two emotions I discussed above- between shame and despair is what caused both- emptiness, an abyss.

That sense of a parenthesis that lies around the devastation of the event is something that Herzog plays upon. The two most redemptive images of the film come from the prison chaplain and the captain of the death squad, for them parentheses are moments of pity (in the first case- the parenthesis around a pause to watch a squirrel) or common sense (that life in the latter case is the dash between death and birth on a tombstone) but the director plays with that parenthesis throughout. He plays with what might be called the abyss- with the abyss between interviewee and interviewer inside a prison where glass separates them physically, the abyss between two lovers separated by a wall, the abyss which defines our lives and gives meaning to them. Lastly the abyss that is the event itself that determined all this: Herzog makes a point of showing us that the murders happened for almost no reason. All this devastation and destruction came from a moment that seemed thoughtless, that itself was an abyss where action took over from deliberation, where 'I want' trammelled up the consequence of that desire. Where 72 hours of possession of a sports car justified the murders of three people.

Herzog is against the death penalty, but though his film is about death row, its not about the death penalty. Its about the ways in which we can destroy our own lives, slipping into worlds where violence is a convention, where you learn to read in prison, where the sins of the fathers become the sins of the sons and so on infinitum down to the end of recorded time. Herzog's vision of that is dark- between the parenthesis of shame and despair, you find nothingness, the nothingness of sin. The redeeming moments of  this film are moments when the chaplain and death captain tell us about other ways of thinking about moments, ways that bring out the positive nature of life, but over them hangs a stench of what happened ten years ago and the consequences that to this day continue to unravel from that one event.