It was October 30th, 2001. Police in Conroe, Texas pulled over a red Camaro. The driver ran, but was quickly apprehended and identified himself as Adam Stotler with his identification corroborating the story. Upon further questioning, he ended up identifying himself as Michael Perry. After making bail, he disappeared. The following Saturday, the body of 50-year-old nurse Sandra Stotler was pulled from a local pond by a fisherman. She'd been shot to death. Police checked the Stotler home and discovered evidence of foul play. Shortly thereafter, fingerprints found on the red Camaro matched Perry's and Perry became a suspect. Police would eventually catch up to Perry and Jason Burkett, both were found while in Ms. Stotler's SUV. It was during their questioning that both Burkett and Perry confessed, but not just to the murder of Ms. Stotler... They also confessed to the murder of her 16-year-old and 18-year-old Jeremy Richardson while also telling police where their bodies could be found.
As the story goes, all three were killed by Perry and Burkett because they lusted after Adam Stotler's 1997 red Camaro. Michael Perry was executed by the state of Texas in 2010, though it's worth noting that after his initial confessions he had repeatedly recanted over recent years. Burkett, on the other hand, was sentenced to life in prison and is not eligible for parole until the year 2041.
Master documentarian Werner Herzog examines this case, but he does so not in a way that seeks to exonerate or justify but simply to ask "What causes people to kill, whether those people be the "criminals" or the state seeking to somehow exact justice?"
Can murder possibly be just?
Herzog gained access to both men, Perry only a few days before his execution and Burkett, of course, while at the prison. Herzog isn't out to examine the killings, though he sets the tone well for the film early on when he tells Burkett "I don't have to like you. I do respect you as a human being." Indeed, Herzog's film may be at its very essence an indictment of the families, communities and institutions that breed people who kill and, as well, that very same society that somehow deems it just to take yet another life in an attempt to reach some vague concept of justice.
It's clear, in fact, that Herzog considers capital punishment unjust. It's not that he in anyway minimizes the actions of these young men, but he presents a compelling argument that capital punishment does nothing to alter the grip that violence seems to have on our communities.
In addition to interviews with the men convicted for the killings, Herzog presents compelling and incredibly moving crime scene footage along with family members, a prison chaplain, a sheriff, some locals and even a former death row supervisor. Those familiar with Herzog's works, and if you're not you should be, will recognize Herzog's familiar use of music (that includes a string arrangement from Mark Di Gli Antoni along with D.P. Peter Zeitlinger's crystal clear camera work. Editor Joe Bini is clearly familiar with Herzog himself, because the film is edited to perfectly companion Herzog's often poetic narration and willingness to linger on a word, an image or a thought.
Into the Abyss,
regardless of where you find yourself on the subject of capital punishment, is one of Herzog's most deeply moving documentaries but it is also an undeniably sad film. This sadness, perhaps confirming what we all should know about the cycle of violence, is captured when Herzog interviews the father of Burkett, himself a felon with multiple convictions, who confesses that Jason "had trash for a father."
Sad. Sad, indeed.
It's surprising and disappointing that Into the Abyss
was not short-listed by the Academy for Oscar consideration this year, though it's serious subject matter and emotional presentation may have been a detraction for some voters. Regardless, for those who value high quality social justice documentaries that also capture the human spirit vividly this will be one film to catch if it visits an arthouse theatre near you.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic