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Germany/Canada 2011
Directed by
Werner Herzog
107 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Into the Abyss

Synopsis: Two teenagers, Jason Burkett and Michael Perry, were tried and convicted for a 2001 triple murder that took place in Conroe, Texas in 2001. Burkett received a life sentence with a non-parole period of 40 years, Perry was executed on July 1, 2010. This is their story.

Over a long career as a documentary maker Werner Herzog has developed an effective technique for making low budget docos – pick a worthy subject, point a camera at it, start shooting and provide a running conversational style commentary as matters unfold. It is a highly personal approach, one which worked very well with his 2010 documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, It doesn’t work so well here. This is because whereas prehistory is an area where rambling rumination is entirely suited, the subject of Into the Abyss deserves more probing.  

Herzog mixes interviews with both individuals, archival footage from the crime scene and interviews with family and people connected with the arrest in a film seems almost purposefully unfocussed. He uses portentous Errol Morris-style inter-titles that amount to little, passes off-camera comments that border on the inappropriate, conducts an extended beside-the-point interview with a baseball-capped buffoon in which he gets completely involved in the lad’s personal history, allows both Burkett and Perry to proclaim their innocence but blame each other and does not pursues the matter further, or even explain why Burkett escaped execution and encourages Perry, who proclaim himself a Christian, towards the view that he has been dealt a bad hand, partly it seems because of his own anti-death penalty stance. Then there’s the seemingly otherwise-intelligent woman who married Burkett as a result of being involved in his defence, we don't find out why, and has managed to get pregnant by him, although we don’t find out how. It’s a strange assembly of material to say the least.

There is a Leonard Cohen line that goes: “there’s a crack in everything, that’s where the light gets in”. It well suits this film whose principal merit is as a document of a way of life which many people, certainly in Australia, would not know – that of trailer trash Southern society with its institutionalized nexus of poverty, crime and incarceration, the underside of the American dream, a subject in which Herzog has had a career-long interest. As a documentary, on its immediate subject matter one feels the lack of investigative depth, but as a drive-by through Texan sub-culture it is a fascinating and sobering armchair ride.




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