Documentary Review: Into the Abyss

 

October 24, 2001, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett went to the home of an acquaintance, Adam Stotler, to finagle their way into staying the night with the intention of stealing the Camaro in the garage. Adam’s mother, Sandra, told them he wasn’t home so Perry and Burkett murdered her. After dumping the body in a nearby lake, they returned to find Highland Ranch now locked. They waited at the gate until Adam arrived, then lured him and his friend, Jeremy Richardson, into the woods where they murdered them to get the remote to gain access back into the community so they could steal the Camaro. Sandra was 50 years old, Jeremy 18, and Adam 17.

In his documentary about the murders, Into the Abyss: A Tale of Life, a Tale of Death, Werner Herzog is upfront about his stance on the punishment handed to Perry. Interviewing Perry from behind bulletproof glass in a Livingston, TX, penitentiary, Herzog tells him, “[D]estiny, in a way, has dealt you a very bad deck of cards. It does not exonerate you and when I talk to you, it does not necessarily mean that I have to like you, but…you are a human being and I think human beings should not be executed.” Were decrying capital punishment Herzog’s aim, he does not go about it by minimizing the crimes of Perry and Burkett. The film journeys where the title promises it will.

Sandra Stotler, Adam Stotler.

Conveying the enormity of the crimes is achieved not by dwelling on the gruesome details of the act itself, though Herzog doesn’t shy from showing police footage of the crime scene where we see a rug placed to hide a pool of blood on the floor, though the wall and door frame are spattered. Most haunting is the kitchen counter across from a TV left on for days. Cookie dough sits in scoops on a sheet, an eggshell next to it, a cookbook cracked open nearby—it was a normal day. The interviews following this footage make apparent the actual toll of the murders. Lisa Stotler-Balloun, daughter and sister of the victims, tells how after Sandra’s body was found and Adam was still missing, she was alerted her brother had been admitted to the hospital, only to find out it was Michael Perry using Adam’s ID after he murdered him. She got rid of her phone. “All it ever brought me was bad news.” After agreeing Jesus probably wouldn’t have supported the death penalty, it’s no surprise she then questions His judgment on the matter.

Charles Richardson, brother of Jeremy, lives with the guilt he “introduced [Jeremy] to the people who killed him.” After nine years of practice, he still struggles to hold back tears. Even people incidentally connected to the crime feel its effects years on. We hear from a bartender who knew the perpetrators, her pain visible as she explains their initial plan was to steal her roommate’s car. Happenstance prevented this from being a film interviewing her relatives. That’s not the kind of serendipity one is grateful for. For Delbert Burkett whose testimony saved his son from receiving a death sentence like his accomplice, the murders are a testament to his own failings. “He had trash for a father,” he says. The interview is a near replica of millions of possible interviews with the fathers of inmates. Like his son, he’s filmed through a pane of glass.

Charles Richardson with pictures of his brother, Jeremy.

It is an outrage what these young men did. How asinine, how pointless, how horrible. Not one damned thing was gained. Herzog has stated he doesn’t believe movies can change people’s political beliefs. Rather than stake a position on the policy of capital punishment, he probes into deeper matters. Where most true-crime is obsessed with the mechanics of murder, investigation, legal proceedings, and psychology, this documentary concerns itself with the soul. One interviewee, Fred Allen, a former Texas executioner who renounced his duties at the cost of his pension, implores us to “live your dash”, referring to the dash between the dates on your tombstone. How would life be different had Perry and Burkett spent that Wednesday night doing something else? is the unstated but central question at the heart of Into the Abyss. The two weren’t bright kids with promising futures. Their youths were troubled, their criminal plans the product of shallow minds. Yet they had the option not to kill. Before October 24, 2001, there were futures ahead of them where they didn’t end up in prison, where three innocent people didn’t die.

Werner Herzog

Herzog is a treasure. There’s no other way to describe someone for whom a film like Into the Abyss escapes most discussions of his finest work. That’s not merely a function of genre or release date. The better-known Grizzly Man, a dive into one eccentric’s fatal obsession, was released decades after his masterpieces of narrative film, and only six years before Into the Abyss. Unlike the former, the latter film had little preexisting footage to draw from. It relies on his incredible talent as an interviewer. His soft voice and gentle manner invite candid responses from subjects who are understandably guarded. He asks the right questions. One about an encounter with a squirrel prompts an answer of unexpected power. Amid the drear, he finds levity. Interviewing the woman who married Jason Burkett during his sentence, he tries coaxing from her the logistics of their pregnancy when they are not allowed conjugal visits.

My second time watching I was struck by the contrast in how Fred Allen and the murderers react to taking human life. Fred was carrying out state-sanctioned orders against people who took innocent lives. He is devastated, haunted, by having participated. Michael Perry refused accountability until the injection stopped his heart beating. Jason Burkett plead guilty, but continues shifting blame. (There are no serious doubts about their guilt, and Herzog never entertains the idea there are.) It’s a shame most people will miss out on such revelations as may be discovered on repeat viewings, but it’s tough hearing stories of victims hurting nine years after the crimes, who must still be hurting another decade on. Do see it once. It sticks with you years afterward.

Published in Entertainment
This post was promoted to the Main Feed by a Ricochet Editor at the recommendation of Ricochet members. Like this post? Want to comment? Join Ricochet’s community of conservatives and be part of the conversation. Get your first month free.

There are 51 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. It's TGS with Cat III! Member
    It's TGS with Cat III!
    @CatIII

    A couple tidbits I couldn’t fit into the review organically but which I find interesting. The credits for the movie’s music show David Byrne of the Talking Heads performed guitar, but more importantly singer-songwriter Lisa Germano performed violin.

    According to murderpedia, Michael Perry’s final meal was: Three bacon, egg, cheese omelets. In addition three chicken cheese enchiladas and 3 each of Pepsi, Coke and Dr. Pepper.

    • #1
  2. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor
    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher
    @HankRhody

    It's TGS with Cat III!: After agreeing Jesus probably wouldn’t have supported the death penalty, it’s no surprise she then questions His judgment on the matter.

    Genesis 9:6
    Whoever sheds man’s blood
    By man his blood shall be shed;
    For in the image of God
    He made man.

    Christianity isn’t “wouldn’t it be nice if we could all be nice to each other for a change?”

    • #2
  3. Henry Racette Contributor
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    Terrific review. Well done.

    Capital punishment is one of the many important issues about which decent and thoughtful people can disagree — and for which there is no logically necessary and definitive answer. I’ve been on both sides of it, in opposition as a libertarian advocating the least necessary use of lethal force on the part of the government, and cautiously in favor as a traditionalist conservative loath to remove that particular arrow from the cultural quiver. (I hold to the latter view today.)

    • #3
  4. It's TGS with Cat III! Member
    It's TGS with Cat III!
    @CatIII

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher (View Comment):

    It’s TGS with Cat III!: After agreeing Jesus probably wouldn’t have supported the death penalty, it’s no surprise she then questions His judgment on the matter.

    Genesis 9:6
    Whoever sheds man’s blood
    By man his blood shall be shed;
    For in the image of God
    He made man.

    Christianity isn’t “wouldn’t it be nice if we could all be nice to each other for a change?”

    The theological point doesn’t interest me. What does is that she believed Jesus probably wouldn’t support capital punishment yet (understandably) supported it herself. It was one of those moments that stood out when I first watched the film.

    • #4
  5. It's TGS with Cat III! Member
    It's TGS with Cat III!
    @CatIII

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    Terrific review. Well done.

    Capital punishment is one of the many important issues about which decent and thoughtful people can disagree — and for which there is no logically necessary and definitive answer. I’ve been on both sides of it, in opposition as a libertarian advocating the least necessary use of lethal force on the part of the government, and cautiously in favor as a traditionalist conservative loath to remove that particular arrow from the cultural quiver. (I hold to the latter view today.)

    Thank you.

    I’m agnostic on capital punishment. I long held the libertarian position you lay out (with the addition of wanting to avoid putting to death innocent people and leaving opportunity for redemption). But there are some people who’ve forfeit their right to live. Perhaps ironically my view that solitary confinement is torture has made me more receptive to capital punishment as a more humane alternative. Society won’t crumble if we get rid of it, or at least won’t crumble because we got rid of it. Likewise if we keep it.

    • #5
  6. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Terrific review. I remember reviewing In Cold Blood for my high school newspaper in 1967. Another harrowing story that didn’t pull any punches about the viciousness of the murders. I’m pro-death penalty, but I’ll listen with respect to anyone who disagrees, provided they don’t tone down the facts. 

    Judging by the speed at which this post is piling up the Recommends, it’ll surely be on Main Feed soon. Deservedly so. 

    • #6
  7. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    It's TGS with Cat III! (View Comment):
    But there are some people who’ve forfeit their right to live. Perhaps ironically my view that solitary confinement is torture has made me more receptive to capital punishment as a more humane alternative. Society won’t crumble if we get rid of it, or at least won’t crumble because we got rid of it. Likewise if we keep it.

    And, you lay out the moves in the game being played by the Left: claiming a moral superiority in supposed care for murderers’ lives, WHILE laying the foundation for ending solitary confinement and real life imprisonment the moment they can put capital punishment repeal over on us. 

    • #7
  8. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    It's TGS with Cat III!: Herzog is a treasure.

    Yes, both for his documentary and fiction work. He even manages to do public service announcement propaganda right in From One Second to the Next.

    • #8
  9. CACrabtree Coolidge
    CACrabtree
    @CACrabtree

    Clifford A. Brown (View Comment):

    It’s TGS with Cat III! (View Comment):
    But there are some people who’ve forfeit their right to live. Perhaps ironically my view that solitary confinement is torture has made me more receptive to capital punishment as a more humane alternative. Society won’t crumble if we get rid of it, or at least won’t crumble because we got rid of it. Likewise if we keep it.

    And, you lay out the moves in the game being played by the Left: claiming a moral superiority in supposed care for murderers’ lives, WHILE laying the foundation for ending solitary confinement and real life imprisonment the moment they can put capital punishment repeal over on us.

    Also arguing about the “costs” associated with capital punishment, all the while adding to those “costs” with one frivolous appeal after another.  So much of these “costs” could be ameliorated by forcing defense attorneys to group all their appeals together.  There are very few cases in which there is a question of guilt; most appeals are on procedural grounds.  Seems to me, these appeals could be grouped while still maintaining fairness to the defendent(s).

    • #9
  10. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    People might read the anti-death penalty arguments with more respect if the very next page of the paper/magazine/web site wasn’t headlined, “Why are we warehousing human beings?” It doesn’t give a lot of confidence that these allegedly airtight, “strict” life sentences will actually be carried out. 

    • #10
  11. Doctor Robert Member
    Doctor Robert
    @DoctorRobert

    It's TGS with Cat III!: After agreeing Jesus probably wouldn’t have supported the death penalty, it’s no surprise she then questions His judgment on the matter.

    An absurd statement.  Christ spoke of the afterlife and accepted the death penalty upon himself.  He knew the death penalty as part of the culture and times in which He lived.  Were He anti-death penalty, we should see that somewhere in the Gospels.

    Don’t project your own biases upon the Lord.

    • #11
  12. Ansonia Member
    Ansonia
    @Ansonia

    Is there any possibility the murderers were high on drugs at the time ?

    Excellent post, TGS with Cat.

    • #12
  13. CACrabtree Coolidge
    CACrabtree
    @CACrabtree

    Ansonia (View Comment):

    Is there any possibility the murderers were high on drugs at the time ?

    And this would make a difference, why?

    • #13
  14. Ansonia Member
    Ansonia
    @Ansonia

    CACrabtree (View Comment):

    Ansonia (View Comment):

    Is there any possibility the murderers were high on drugs at the time ?

    And this would make a difference, why?

    It should make absolutely no difference, as far as I’m concerned, regarding putting them to death. 

    I guess I just happened to be idly thinking that the one who went to his execution still denying what he had done is either stuck with his lie for all eternity (a horrible thought, that) or was so out-of-his-mind blitzed at the time that he honestly doesn’t remember what he did.

    • #14
  15. CACrabtree Coolidge
    CACrabtree
    @CACrabtree

    Ansonia (View Comment):

    CACrabtree (View Comment):

    Ansonia (View Comment):

    Is there any possibility the murderers were high on drugs at the time ?

    And this would make a difference, why?

    It should make absolutely no difference, as far as I’m concerned, regarding putting them to death.

    I guess I just happened to be idly thinking that the one who went to his execution still denying what he had done is either stuck with his lie for all eternity (a horrible thought, that) or was so out-of-his-mind blitzed at the time that he honestly doesn’t remember what he did.

    Like you said, to the victim, it makes absolutely no difference. 

    As to a killer’s last thoughts, ditto.

    • #15
  16. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    That Jesus would oppose capital punishment is an interesting take as the entire gospel of salvation hinges on it. Somehow the whole “Jesus did 5 to 10 for your sins” doesn’t seem to work. Could be me.

    • #16
  17. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    Ansonia (View Comment):

    Is there any possibility the murderers were high on drugs at the time ?

    Excellent post, TGS with Cat.

    In the common law, it was considered one’s own fault to be drunk or impaired and thus being drunk did not ameliorate the crime or exonerate the criminal.  With the submergence of the common law, it’s going to matter what the jurisdiction says in their laws.

    • #17
  18. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    Sometimes a sentence isn’t only for punishment.  Sometimes a sentence isn’t only for deterrence.  Sometimes a sentence isn’t only for the victim or his family.

    Sometimes a sentence is to simply rid us of human filth that live among us.

    With the development of DNA testing it should be easier and surer to identify the guilty and punish them appropriately.

    • #18
  19. It's TGS with Cat III! Member
    It's TGS with Cat III!
    @CatIII

    Doctor Robert (View Comment):

    It’s TGS with Cat III!: After agreeing Jesus probably wouldn’t have supported the death penalty, it’s no surprise she then questions His judgment on the matter.

    An absurd statement. Christ spoke of the afterlife and accepted the death penalty upon himself. He knew the death penalty as part of the culture and times in which He lived. Were He anti-death penalty, we should see that somewhere in the Gospels.

    Don’t project your own biases upon the Lord.

    I make no claims about what Jesus taught, what is “correct” Christian doctrine concerning capital punishment. I only note Lisa Stotler-Balloun agreed with the proposition Jesus probably wouldn’t have supported it, an interesting moment considering her follow-up statement.

    • #19
  20. It's TGS with Cat III! Member
    It's TGS with Cat III!
    @CatIII

    Clifford A. Brown (View Comment):

    It’s TGS with Cat III!: Herzog is a treasure.

    Yes, both for his documentary and fiction work.

    His fiction films are fantastic. For anyone who hasn’t seen any, the best place to start is, I say, Aguirre: The Wrath of God, a strange movie about a doomed expedition through South America. It manages to be short yet epic, grand yet personal. There’s really nothing like it.

    His remake of Nosferatu is perfect for those who like their horror slow, real slow, and caked in atmosphere. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is good if you want something newer that plays like a modern movie, while keeping Herzog’s strange vision. Also, features a batty Nic Cage performance.

    He even manages to do public service announcement propaganda right in From One Second to the Next.

    Thanks for the link. That’s one I have yet to see. Don’t doubt his ability to handle the subject with uncommon respect and intelligence.

    • #20
  21. It's TGS with Cat III! Member
    It's TGS with Cat III!
    @CatIII

    Ansonia (View Comment):

    Is there any possibility the murderers were high on drugs at the time ?

    There’s a police office near the beginning of the film who relays the crimes committed. Herzog asks if drugs were involved and the officer says he doesn’t know of evidence specifically stating they were. I thought I’d check Perry’s murderpedia page, though. Searching for “drug” brings tons of results. Such as this from the Federal Appendix of one of his appeals:

    Finally, Perry argues that his counsel did not investigate and present sufficient evidence of his drug and alcohol abuse. Although counsel presented evidence of Perry’s drug and alcohol problems, Perry argues that counsel did not present it as serious enough or as something Perry had no control over. Counsel did present evidence that Perry had starting drinking and smoking marijuana at a very young age, had progressed to more serious drugs, was involved in a lot of drugs and drinking, and had been selling prescription drugs at one point.

    There’s also an AP story about his execution that describes the murder as being during “an alcohol and drug-fueled binge.” It’s not surprising these two had drug habits from an early age. If they were high, that might explain how risky and stupid their whole plan was. Didn’t mention in the review, but they claimed to have won the lottery as a way to explain to people how they got the new car (which everyone could tell didn’t come from a dealership). They’re not geniuses, but from their interviews they don’t come off that dumb. Lots of people get high and drunk without committing murder, though. I’m no expert on how intoxication could affect their sentencing, and like Skyler says, that differs depending on the jurisdiction.

    Excellent post, TGS with Cat.

    Thank you.

    • #21
  22. CB Toder aka Mama Toad Member
    CB Toder aka Mama Toad
    @CBToderakaMamaToad

    I just watched the movie on Prime. Thanks.

    I can understand and even partly agree with the rationale for imposing the death penalty, but I do not favor the death penalty because it is not some impersonal State or Justice that has to do the actual killing but rather some guy who works for the Corrections Department. That, for me, is the fundamental problem.

    Captain Fred Allen was responsible for carrying out more than 100 death sentences, and I can’t help but think that we are wrong as a society to ask him to perform any. He’s killing people, and he knows it’s wrong. Thanks to Werner Herzog for helping us to see that too.

    • #22
  23. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor
    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher
    @HankRhody

    It's TGS with Cat III! (View Comment):

    Doctor Robert (View Comment):

    It’s TGS with Cat III!: After agreeing Jesus probably wouldn’t have supported the death penalty, it’s no surprise she then questions His judgment on the matter.

    An absurd statement. Christ spoke of the afterlife and accepted the death penalty upon himself. He knew the death penalty as part of the culture and times in which He lived. Were He anti-death penalty, we should see that somewhere in the Gospels.

    Don’t project your own biases upon the Lord.

    I make no claims about what Jesus taught, what is “correct” Christian doctrine concerning capital punishment. I only note Lisa Stotler-Balloun agreed with the proposition Jesus probably wouldn’t have supported it, an interesting moment considering her follow-up statement.

    I get that, it’s just that the exchange rubs me wrong. “Oh I could never vote Republican; I’m not a member of the Country Club.” 

    • #23
  24. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor
    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher
    @HankRhody

    CB Toder aka Mama Toad (View Comment):
    Captain Fred Allen was responsible for carrying out more than 100 death sentences, and I can’t help but think that we are wrong as a society to ask him to perform any. He’s killing people, and he knows it’s wrong. Thanks to Werner Herzog for helping us to see that too.

    If he knew that killing those people was right would that change the calculations any? 

    • #24
  25. CB Toder aka Mama Toad Member
    CB Toder aka Mama Toad
    @CBToderakaMamaToad

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher (View Comment):

    CB Toder aka Mama Toad (View Comment):
    Captain Fred Allen was responsible for carrying out more than 100 death sentences, and I can’t help but think that we are wrong as a society to ask him to perform any. He’s killing people, and he knows it’s wrong. Thanks to Werner Herzog for helping us to see that too.

    If he knew that killing those people was right would that change the calculations any?

    I don’t think he had any doubts about their guilt or the horror of their crimes, certainly he does not mention such, and clearly the people on death row did pretty horrific things; it was that he knew them as people, since they were in his section before dying, and that as a purely procedural part of his job he tied them up and killed them. Sometimes they thanked him before being killed.

    I think that it is wrong to ask a man to perform ritual killing. It dehumanizes him.

    • #25
  26. CB Toder aka Mama Toad Member
    CB Toder aka Mama Toad
    @CBToderakaMamaToad

    CB Toder aka Mama Toad (View Comment):
    I think that it is wrong to ask a man to perform ritual killing. It dehumanizes him.

    Killing in war is different. It can dehumanize too, all right, but it is not a ritual, procedural, tie them up before you kill them sort of thing.

    • #26
  27. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    CB Toder aka Mama Toad (View Comment):

    CB Toder aka Mama Toad (View Comment):
    I think that it is wrong to ask a man to perform ritual killing. It dehumanizes him.

    Killing in war is different. It can dehumanize too, all right, but it is not a ritual, procedural, tie them up before you kill them sort of thing.

    Not all people are so squeamish in lawfully eradicating human filth from the earth.  Sign me up.

    • #27
  28. CB Toder aka Mama Toad Member
    CB Toder aka Mama Toad
    @CBToderakaMamaToad

    Skyler (View Comment):
    Not all people are so squeamish in lawfully eradicating human filth from the earth. Sign me up.

    Case in point…

    • #28
  29. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor
    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher
    @HankRhody

    Skyler (View Comment):

    CB Toder aka Mama Toad (View Comment):

    CB Toder aka Mama Toad (View Comment):
    I think that it is wrong to ask a man to perform ritual killing. It dehumanizes him.

    Killing in war is different. It can dehumanize too, all right, but it is not a ritual, procedural, tie them up before you kill them sort of thing.

    Not all people are so squeamish in lawfully eradicating human filth from the earth. Sign me up.

    I recall hearing about a study years ago which, as I was told, demonstrated the differing reactions of men and women to watching people punished. In men and women the section of the brain denoting sympathy lit up when they thought the man in question didn’t deserve to be punished. If they thought he did deserve to be punished then the man’s sympathy section was dulled entirely. The woman’s was still lit up, but less so.

    The gag came discussing a mutual friend. “When they hooked him up the sympathy section dimmed entirely, but the sections of the brain corresponding to pleasure lit right up. Burned so brightly they had to replace the monitor.”

    • #29
  30. RyanFalcone Member
    RyanFalcone
    @RyanFalcone

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher (View Comment):

    It’s TGS with Cat III! (View Comment):

    Doctor Robert (View Comment):

    It’s TGS with Cat III!: After agreeing Jesus probably wouldn’t have supported the death penalty, it’s no surprise she then questions His judgment on the matter.

    An absurd statement. Christ spoke of the afterlife and accepted the death penalty upon himself. He knew the death penalty as part of the culture and times in which He lived. Were He anti-death penalty, we should see that somewhere in the Gospels.

    Don’t project your own biases upon the Lord.

    I make no claims about what Jesus taught, what is “correct” Christian doctrine concerning capital punishment. I only note Lisa Stotler-Balloun agreed with the proposition Jesus probably wouldn’t have supported it, an interesting moment considering her follow-up statement.

    I get that, it’s just that the exchange rubs me wrong. “Oh I could never vote Republican; I’m not a member of the Country Club.”

    A very good point. There are certainly examples of people hating Christians or Christ or Republicans because they actually know them and reject them but the vast majority of the hatred received by them is based of the deception done by their adversaries.

    If there are any appreciable numbers of people out there that actually think Jesus would’ve been anti-capital punishment, then we have failed at the societal level. 

    • #30