Plot: Michael Perry was sentenced to death row after being convicted in connection to three murders, all centered around the theft of an automobile and a few days of joyriding that followed. Perry’s accomplice Jason Burkett was also convicted, but was given a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Into the Abyss follows Werner Herzog as he explores the case and more to the point, the people involved in the case, from the criminals to the families to law enforcement, to offer a personal, in depth glimpse into the lives of those involved. The piece reflects Herzog’s anti death penalty stance, but he doesn’t force feed his politics here, instead he allows the participants to offer their own voices and perspectives.
Entertainment Value: As you’d expect from Werner Herzog, Into the Abyss isn’t the typical true crime style documentary and offers a much more personal, intimate look into the wake of a tragic chain of events. The focus is on the people involved, not the crime itself, so while you do learn some details about the events, that is more to set up the exploration of the lives impacted. I’m often surprised by how much crime is almost fetishistic in some documentaries, so it is a welcome shift to have a film that doesn’t focus on the crime itself. As I said, Herzog does ensure the events that happened are detailed, it is never sensationalized and again, just serves as a framework to better understand how these people ended up where they are here. Herzog speaks at length with Perry, who we meet about a week before he is scheduled to be executed, as well as his accomplice Burkett. These interviews allow first hand perspectives on the situation, though this is not an attempt to exonerate anyone, as even Herzog seems hesitant to believe Perry’s claims of innocence. But the interviews are powerful, especially knowing Perry is right on the verge of death.
Herzog goes much deeper than just the convicted parties involved however, offering interviews with those close to the situation that shed immense light on the victims and criminals alike. Burkett’s father appears and provides some of the most powerful moments, especially when he details how he made a desperate plea to the court to spare his son the death sentence. You also hear from family and friends of the criminals and victims, which paint a picture of what life was like for these people, as well as the holes their absences have left behind. This is hard to watch at times, as Herzog is able to get the interviewees to really open up and be candid, which leads to a lot of emotional and resonant moments. As I said before, Herzog is firmly anti death penalty and he never hides that, even including a couple of strong interviews that support that argument, but the movie isn’t propaganda or a political device. If you’re a fan of true crime or documentaries in general, give Into the Abyss a look.