In Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, the murderer Perry was invited to say his last words after being led down death row. “I’d like to apologise, but to who?”
In Werner Herzog’s breathlessly cinematic take on the Capote template, 28-year-old Michael Perry – strapped into the gantry, the lethal dose ready and waiting – said: “I want to start off by saying and letting everyone involved in this atrocity know they’re all forgiven by me. I love you Mom, I’m ready to go now. I’m coming home Dad. Coming home.”
In 2001 in Conroe, Texas, the then 18-year-old Perry and his accomplice Jason Burkett, 19, broke into the home of nurse Sandra Stotler and shot her with a shotgun, twice. They dumped her body in a lake before luring her son Adam, 17, and his friend Jeremy Richardson, 18, into nearby woods. Both were executed, before Perry and Burkett jacked her red Camaro sports car and drove it to their local drinking hole to offer joyrides.
Tall, open, lantern-jawed, looking, at least, like an all-American boy, Jason Burkett received a life sentence after his old man – a lifer in the same jail – pleaded with the jury not to kill his son, saying: “He never had a chance.”
Wide-eyed, smiling and boyish, Perry was sent to death row; Herzog interviewed him eight days before his execution, now a reformed Christian convinced of his innocence.
In so many respects, Herzog has chosen to follow the well-trodden path of the death row documentary – the kind of thing you’d expect to see on Bravo at 2am. But this Bavarian is no normal vampire of death. Dozens of questions remain about the case. But this is Werner Herzog, not Errol Morris, and so – in a hushed, reverential way – he manages to find a way of coaxing the humour, the tender, the surreal and the strangely poetic from this “utterly senseless” crime.
Herzog met each and every player in this drama for less than an hour. He waits, he listens, he asks, he allows them to slowly lead him into their abyss. Peter Zeitlinger’s cinematography seems to weave itself into the very fibre of backwater Texas. With only eight hours of footage, the editing process was so intense it drove them both to start smoking again.
The investigating police officer guides us inch by sickening inch through the crime, before finally showing us the impounded red Camaro, a tree growing within its body. Stotler’s daughter tells of how she disconnected her phone after the murders “because she couldn’t take another call.” Richardson’s brother shows a tattoo’d tear below his left eye. Jason Burkett’s wife – whom he speaks to through a pain of glass – shows us an ultrasound of their baby.
Finally, like a postscript, an eloquent disavowal from the man who oversaw 125 death row executions and then, on the verge of a breakdown, saw his victims sat in their cells after they had died.
But Into the Abyss is not a condemnation of the end, but a condemnation of the means. It is a collection of elegies delivered with more power than a screenwriter or actor could ever perform, displaying in lurid complexity an America third-world in its desperate and perpetual tragedy, but where stray compassion can still so easily take root.
Into The Abyss is in cinemas now.
Text: Tom Seymour