Into the Abyss: A Bleak Documentary About Life, Death, and the Dash in Between

Couple of minutes into the movie, we see a fairly young and a suitably jovial man talk to the camera. He is introduced as Michael Perry. His voice rushes and his eyelids dilate when he is talking. Just gauging him by the way he speaks, there is nothing unusual about this guy – you would have waited behind him in queues, let out a perfunctory smile at him in public place, and he would have smiled back. There is nothing unusual about him, except that he is sitting handcuffed, behind a prison cell, and would be executed eight days later. He has been accused of killing three people. He fancied their Toyota Camry.

There is much to admire in the way Herzog structures this documentary. He very astutely introduces us to the perpetrator, sans any introduction. We see this young guy talk glibly, smile a lot and develop a liking to him. And then Herzog takes us to the crime scene, talks to the investigating officers, and makes us meet the victims’ hapless relatives – a working lady, and a kid out of college. And now when we face Micheal Perry – although his demeanor is unchanged, we perceive him a little differently. His eyes look cold, and his jovial face reminds us how remorseless he is – psychopath like. Only someone as seasoned as Herzog can fiddle around with audience’s perspective with such aplomb.

Into the Abyss

Micheal Perry was not responsible for those three deaths alone. Some scenes later, we meet Jason Burkett, convicted for the same crime. The only difference is he hasn’t been sentenced to death, rather forty years in prison. As Burkett begins speaking, he lets out a startling revelation. He hasn’t confessed to the crime. He blames Perry. And neither does Perry, he blames Burkett. Although Herzog doesn’t dwell much on who might have actually committed the crime (there are evidences by Police that suggest both were responsible), rather on the documentary’s kernel – is capital punishment justified? Herzog very forthrightly says that he does not believe anyone has the right to take another life.

But again, the documentary is just not about whether capital punishments are inutile or not. It is also about reflecting on a failed life. Burkett’s father, Delbert Burkett, is also in prison, convicted for 8 charges of felony, that amounts for more than 80 years odd in prison (practically, his entire life). His face has guilt written all over it, of not only destroying his own life, but also his son’s. He turned up at his son’s trial and said he was to be blamed for the way his son turned out. That his neglect should not be the reason for his son’s death. He later says that his plea could have moved two female jurors (he heard two female jurors sobbing behind closed doors), and Burkett was not awarded a death sentence. Micheal Perry had no such father. Burkett’s father candidly takes us to initial years of his life — a promising life which he recklessly squandered, where he was given scholarship to attend University of Texas, Austin. Instead, he dropped out of school and dashed into a world of drugs and alcoholism. It is disconcerting to hear him say that he and his son celebrated thanksgiving together in jail, that his life’s ultimate low-point was whenhe had to share a ride with his son, and both of them were handcuffed. Burkett’s father’s poignant reflection on his wasted life forms an important part of the narrative. Because when we see gangsters on-screen, they play certain standard roles – predators, survivors. etc. Burkett’s father’s does not hide his vulnerability, and neither is he afraid to admit that he blew it up. And that nothing can be done. Seldom have the criminals been shown this flawed, and most importantly, their awareness of it, and sadly – the helplessness of the entire situation.

The documentary also brings to light that we human beings still want an eye for an eye. It is one thing to be objective about it and say, “But killing a human being won’t bring those dead human beings to life.” But try saying that to a lady whose three relatives were killed for a Toyota Camry’s joyride. She flicks the corner of an eye, looks into the camera and says, “I don’t want to sound like an evil person, but I am so glad I went to the execution. It really did something to me. Immediately after the execution, that saying, that a huge weight has been lifted? I could actually take a deep breath. My heart didn’t ache as much.” And I could sympathize with what she said. It is easy to be objective when one is just sitting on the fence and has nothing to lose. Again, I am not saying killing those criminals would bring any equilibrium to the world, neither am I advocating it. But at the same time, as a flawed human being who does go through the crest and trough of emotions, I could also understand where the deceased’s relative was coming from.

Herzog then asks her if locking Burkett for life would give her solace. And she agrees. Herzog also says that death penalty seems a little too much and Jesus would not have agreed to it. She partially agrees to that too. But then she follows up with something that remained with me, a long time after the movie ended, “But some people don’t deserve to live.”

This is an extremely sensitive documentary, as the subjects constantly talk about loss of their loved ones (and in the process fight tears in front of the camera), contemplate a wasted life, and discuss their own frailties with surprising candor. But the same cannot be said for some Herzog’s questions. Sure, most of the time he is in the background, and although he takes a stand on this issue, he lets his subjects be. But some of his questions are just as disconcerting for his subjects as for the viewer. For instance, Herzog wants to know more about Burkett’s dad, and so he asks him, “Describe how you felt when you were handcuffed with your son?” What sort of question is this? And can any dad articulate an answer? Burkett’s dad shakes his head multiple times and says, “No, not really.”  But Herzog doesn’t budge. He persists. Burkett’s father shakes his head again and continues speaking. Of course, this information is important to understand Burkett’s character and contains an answer which could be the ultimate low-point in any father’s life, but Herzog could have done with a little sensitivity there. Here he is no different from reporters of India TV, who shove their microphones into the deceased’s relatives’ face and ask, “Aapko kaisa mahsus ho raha hai?” (How are you feeling?). In another similar scene, Herzog is talking to the deceased victim’s elder brother. He is visibly shaken, recounting memories of his dead brother, and appears seconds away from bawling. Herzog again butts in a quite pointless question, “Did you love your brother?” What is the point of even asking a question when the answer is so obvious.

The movie is visually chilling. The camera frequently pans over prison’s poorly-lit walls, the execution room, the barbed fence outside the prison.  Herzog has also been very resourceful with his footage and the limited time he got to interview his subjects. Generally, a documentary emerges from culling out footage that runs over more than a couple of hundred hours. Here, Herzog could interview the inmates only once. He had a total of only 9 hours of footage. But that inadequacy never show up on-screen. And to get everything he wanted from his subjects in only one session of interview, is a remarkable feat. It helps that Herzog is no stranger to brilliance.

Even in this bleak movie, there is a glimmer of hope. It is in the form of Jason Burkett’s wife. She was Jason’s lawyer, who fell in with Jason when he was in prison. Contrasting with other characters in the movie, she is a lot cheerful and hopeful. Even romantic to a fault – she says she once saw a rainbow outside prison, extending from one end of the sky to another and thought this was a hint from heavens to her to fall in love with Burkett. You silently thank her for being naive. This world can’t be carried by cynics alone.

But the character who gives the narrative its most impactful punch is Fred Allen, an officer who was responsible for prosecuting inmates. He says he must have prosecuted more than 125 of them. Sometimes even more than twice a week. And after a point, it began getting tiring, and got to him. He ultimately resigned from his job at the cost of not getting any pension. Herzog comes back to him in the movie’s last scene. Allen says somebody had asked him the question, “So, how do you live your dash?” He didn’t understand it straight away. The man explained him, on your tombstone, you get your birth date, and you get the day you are deceased. There is a little dash in middle, that’s your life right there. And Allen says, that’s what his goal is at the moment. To live that dash.

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