Throughout his impressive career, filmmaker Werner Herzog hasn’t been afraid to explore difficult subject matter. From early works such as Aguirre: Wrath of God to later efforts like the documentary Grizzly Man, the director has explored nature vs. man, and man versus nature. Herzog’s latest effort, the true life Into the Abyss finds him exploring the taking of human life through murder and the subsequent use of the death penalty. Early in the film, Herzog makes his personal opinion clear, “I think human beings should not be executed. It’s as simple as that.” Nonetheless, Herzog is able to put his personal feelings aside and allow people personally affected by the tragedy to tell their story.
Into the Abyss tells the story of two convicted killers, 28-year-old Michael Perry—who was executed just eight days after Herzog interviewed him—and his accomplice Jason Burkett, currently serving a life sentence in a Texas prison. In Conroe, Texas on October 24th, 2001, the two men are out joyriding looking for cars to steal. They went to the home of Sandra Stotler, the mother of mutual acquaintance Adam, with a plan to steal a red Camero and an Isuzu SUV. Just days later, Sandra was found wrapped in a sheet in Crater Lake. Killed via shotgun blast, her son Adam, and his friend Jeremy Richardson, were found shot dead in a wooded area nearby.
Meanwhile, Perry and Burkett bragged about their car theft to friends. However, less than 48-hours later, they were arrested after a high speed chase that ended in a shoot out with the police. While both men claim to be innocence, retrying the case isn’t Herzog’s focus. Instead, he wants to explore just how it is that a person ends up facing life and prison, and how their crime interjecting thoughtful questions, Herzog has produced a documentary that’s both revealing and moving.
Herzog’s interviews reveal that Perry and Burkett seem to be two very different men. Perry came from a supportive family that wanted to help him, but he ran away from home in junior high and became a drifter. He eventually hooked up with Burkett, who gave him drugs and a place to crash. When Herzog asks him about his own family, Burkett reveals that his father is “across the street,” in another section of the prison, also serving a life sentence. In a subsequent interview, the elder Burkett makes it clear that his rotten parenting (he was in and out of jail before receiving his current sentence) is largely responsible for his son’s predicament.
Throughout Into the Abyss, we get interviews with the victim’s relatives. Sandra Stotler’s daughter, who tells us she lost her entire family in a six year period, reveals she can no longer bear to keep a phone in the house for fear of receiving bad news; and Charles Richardson, who scrapped together enough cash to fly back to Texas after his younger brother’s murder, only to be arrested at the funeral for bond-jumping. (Charles’ father is also in prison on murder charges.
Also included are some surprising interviews with the prison priest and an ex-Death Row execution coordinator. Here, Herzog is no doubt spelling out the futility of state sponsored executions. While not saying that these murders shouldn’t be severely punished, Into the Abyss is simply advocating for a more humane form of justice. This point is driven home when we see a shot of the prisoner’s cemetery, where simple cross headstones are engraved with numbers, not names. These are the graves of the inmates whose families have disowned them.
MPI presents Into the Abyss in 1080p at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Shot digitally, the close-ups look solid, with good detail and a realistic appearance. In long shots, sharpness and detail remains. However, it should be noted that the format switches to 4×3 when viewing the 2001 crime scene.
MPI has included two tracks: a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track and a LPCM stereo track. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track does a fine job with this dialogue driven film. Dialogue is always audible and is heard largely through the front channels.
English SDH, and Spanish subtitles are available.
The only special feature on the disc is the film’s theatrical trailer, in high definition.