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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.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.
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.
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