Monday, November 21, 2011
The Abyss Gazes Also Into You
It feels like years have passed, but Troy Davis was only executed two months ago. His was one of the highest-profile death row cases in years and touched off considerable media discussion over the wrongfulness of the death penalty. Though the debate has tapered off in the time since, questions of law enforcement continue to be asked, largely prompted by brutal police responses to the various branches of Occupy Wall Street. The climate seemed ideal, then, for Werner Herzog's Into the Abyss, a documentary that deals with the fate of a convicted murderer. The film, though, seems more interested in the environment that created its troubled subject than in the subject itself. This it presents successfully and quite devastatingly in its own right, but in doing so it nearly loses the main thread. This isn't quite a bad thing.
The springboard for Herzog's meditation on death and its penalties is a triple homicide case committed in Conroe, Texas in 2001. Teenagers Michael Perry and Jason Burkett murdered 50 year-old Sandra Stotler, along with her son--their "friend"--Adam and his friend Jeremy Richardson, in order to take Stotler's expensive car for a joy ride. They were arrested after a protracted shootout and tried for the murders. While not containing a smoking gun, the evidence, as presented in the movie, is fairly credible: Perry confessed the murder of Stotler and directed authorities to the other two bodies, underneath one of which was a cigarette butt with his DNA.
Perry and Burkett are both evasive on the subject of the actual murders in their interviews; Burkett maintains his innocence but says little else, while Perry elides the subject altogether, merely saying he should have never gotten involved with Burkett (Perry's breezy sidestepping is seemingly, alarmingly, clinical; at his execution he forgave Stotler's family, for what they were doing to him). Both were found guilty, though only Perry was sentenced to die; Burkett is eligible for parole in 2041.
Herzog spends little time dealing with and resolving the murk, instead taking Perry and Burkett's guilt for granted and expanding the scope of the film's inquiry to include Conroe itself. Its third and best chapter, The Dark Side of Conroe, lays out a panorama of human wreckage so grim that it's little wonder something like this should have happened there.
Nearly everyone connected with the two murderers interviewed has been warped by violence, degradation, and death. Richardson's brother reveals that his father is incarcerated, and he himself violated the terms of his parole when he left Georgia to come to his brother's funeral, where he was arrested and sent back to prison. Lisa Stotler-Balloun, the daughter and sister of Sandra and Adam Stotler, details just how many family members she's lost in how many brief years. Jason Burkett's father, who will serve out the rest of his life serving a prison sentence and was able to convince two jurors not to have his son executed, recounts the most shameful, barrel-bottom-scraping moment of his life, in which he and his two sons had Thanksgiving dinner together in prison, all in shackles.
The film's bleakness is thankfully, not completely unremitting. There are bits of humor spread throughout, mostly deriving from Herzog's curious line of inquiry. The neighboring town is called Cut and Shoot. One Conroe resident, who was illiterate until he went to prison and learned to read and write letters to and from his family and friends, spends his interview chewing and spitting tobacco and has a priceless answer when asked what he would do with his tattoo of his girlfriend's name if he ever broke up with her. A Death Row chaplain tells a story about golf course squirrels that he poignantly ties into his work.
The most complete marriage of mirth and the monstrous is Burkett's wife. She is his appeal attorney; they fell in love while she filed his paperwork in the court system. She proclaims his innocence and takes a full rainbow she saw over the his prison gates as a sign from God that the two of them were meant to be together. She's carrying his child. Death casts a pall over even the most joyous of institutions and occasions.
The picture of Conroe thus portrayed is one of vicious poverty and omniscient violence, and is painted so vividly that Perry's impending death (he was interviewed only eight days before being administered a lethal injection) almost feels like an afterthought. Like Perry's guilt, the wrongness of his fate is taken to be similarly inarguable. A former prison chaplain, who quit following his ministry of Karla Faye Tucker, inveighs against the state-sanctioned killing of prisoners, and Burkett's father argues nothing is gained in Perry's death; even Stotler-Balloun, who felt more at ease after seeing Perry put to death, says that she would be fine knowing a murderer would simply be kept in jail the rest of his life.
After everything we have seen up to now, it's hard to argue. The murders of Jeremy Richardson and Sandra and Adam Stotler were not the first to afflict Conroe. Nor will they be the last. The problems besetting the community that help give rise to such atrocities are so enormous and deep-seeded as to render the now harmless Michael Perry beside the point. His killing by the state, seen in this light, is less a display of strength than impotence.