*. Hollywood has a fondness for glorifying crime and criminals going all the way back to The Great Train Robbery. Today we’re used to seeing serial killers as mad geniuses like Hannibal Lecter or Jigsaw, while heists are meticulously planned down to the last second by perfectionist masterminds.
*. The reality is that most bad guys are pretty dumb, and most crimes just random and stupid. Never was this more obvious than in the case of the triple murder committed by Michael Perry and Jason Burkett in Texas in 2001, which led to Perry’s execution and Burkett receiving a life sentence. The two teenagers had wanted to steal a woman’s sporty red Camaro and only after their initial plans went awry decided to kill her first. Then, after disposing of her body, they found themselves locked out of her gated community and had to kill another couple of young people (who were their friends) in order to get a clicker to open the gate. All so they could go for a joyride.
*. Grim and stupid then. Not the stuff for a Hollywood crime story, or really for anything edifying. And yet Werner Herzog, a director always keen to discover and explore deep spiritual truths in the human soul, saw this as fruitful ground. One wonders at times what he thought of the banality of evil he found. The almost mocking grin of Perry and his flippant assertions of being a Christian and going to heaven after his execution. The blank stare of Burkett. Burkett’s hybristophiliac wife who somehow gets knocked up, fulfilling the romantic script she has prepared. In the real world these are people you wouldn’t get much out of meeting.
*. I’m not saying Herzog looks down on them, because I don’t think he does. But what do they reveal of the “ecstatic truth” of the soul? Even the prison chaplain who kicks things off by telling a story about almost running over a squirrel with a golf cart and how that made him reflect on the value of life seems faintly ridiculous.
*. No, if there’s any revelation here it’s just how cheap a thing life can seem in certain eyes. One of the most telling interviews comes when a friend of Burkett’s tells of how Burkett stabbed him in the torso with a screwdriver. But no big deal. He didn’t go to the hospital, but only headed to work the same as usual. And for the state executioner death is literally just a job, until he finally can’t take it anymore. That is, after more than a hundred executions. He isn’t sure of the exact number. But it’s one of the few moments in the movie where you get to see something of Herzog’s grail of a religious moment, of looking into the soul, or of witnessing a soul awakening.
*. Into the Abyss is a movie I found hard to like. Mainly for a reason that goes counter to what most critics had to say about it. Roger Ebert’s review can be taken as typical: “Herzog keeps a much lower profile than in many of his documentaries. He is not seen, and his off-camera voice quietly asks questions that are factual, understated and simply curious. . . . Herzog never sensationalizes, never underlines, expresses no opinions. He listens.”
*. While it’s true that Herzog doesn’t appear on screen here, his voice is a constant presence and his questions are highly leading. He asks Burkett’s father to close his eyes and tell him to imagine something. He asks Burkett’s wife to describe the feel of her husband’s hand. This is not the interviewing style of someone who just listens. He is writing a script. Not to mention the fact that he doesn’t actually interview that many people, including no one from Perry’s family.
*. Though he’s against capital punishment, Herzog didn’t want to make a platform film. Though that might have been interesting, seeing as Perry’s guilt is unquestioned so there’s no specter of killing the innocent hanging over things. Instead, Into the Abyss seems more about the randomness of fate and the profound unhappiness that goes along with an awareness of this. It’s not just that redemption is hard work, but that it doesn’t always lead us to a happier place. Perry seems better off just thinking of other things, whatever they may be. I really don’t want to know.