Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life
I’ve never been the victim of a violent crime. The closest I’ve come is when a window was broken out of my old 1977 Toyota Corolla station wagon and a beat up toolbox was taken. To give you an idea of the quality of the tools it contained, I found the toolbox with nearly everything still inside behind the apartment building I lived in at the time. I didn’t bother to file a police report since I got my property back and the cops have more important things to do. Despite this, I still felt violated by whoever shattered the window and stole something that belonged to me. I can’t imagine, and hope I never experience, the sense of loss and violation of having a loved one killed by someone who wanted to steal a piece of property. The subjects of this week’s film, a documentary called “Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life,” are far too familiar with the fallout of such a crime.
Filmmaker Werner Herzog interviewed many of the principals involved in and affected by an October 2001 triple homicide in Conroe, Texas. Michael James Perry and Jason Burkett, both 19 at the time, murdered Sandra Stotler, 50, her son Adam Stotler, 17, and Adam’s friend Jeremy Richardson, 18, with the goal of stealing two cars. The pair was captured after a shootout with police while driving in Adam’s stolen car. Both were tried and convicted of murder. Perry received a death sentence; Burkett was sentenced to life with a chance for parole. Neither man admits to being involved in the crime blaming the other for the murders. At the time of his interview, Perry was eight days away from his execution by lethal injection.
The world of “Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life” is a dark, sad place filled with murder, tragic accidents, drug and alcohol abuse and illiteracy. Everyone interviewed by Herzog is touched by some kind of calamity either beyond their control or of their own doing. Sandra Stotler’s daughter, Lisa, lost all of her immediate family over the course of a six year period. Jason Burkett’s father, Delbert, was rarely involved in his son’s life due to drug and alcohol abuse and several long stints in prison including two murders. Richardson’s family had been touched by tragedy as well. Herzog also interviews the sheriff’s deputy who led the investigation of the murders, people who were obliquely connected to the victims or the perpetrators and two men who were involved in many Texas executions. No one is left untouched by these events and that gives the documentary a level of emotional power not often experienced in scripted films.
This type of film is difficult to review as there aren’t any performances to critique. There is however a couple of people who stood out for me. First is Melyssa Thompson-Burkett, who was working on Jason’s appeal and fell in love with the murderer via letters and married him. While she seems to be perfectly level headed and normal, the longer Herzog interviews her, the more it becomes clear she is a few bricks shy of a load. Aside from the obvious problem of likely never being with her husband without armed guards nearby, there’s the fact she just ignores all the evidence proving her husband was involved with a triple homicide. What completely sends her into the wacko category is the fact she claims to be pregnant with Burkett’s child despite their never being allowed a conjugal visit. This implies either contraband was smuggled out of the prison (ewww!) or she’s having relations with someone else. Either way, the longer she’s on screen, the more votes she gets as Queen of Crazytown. Next is Fred Allen, a guard who was in charge of over 120 Texas executions until he quit in 2000. As he described the moment when he decided enough was enough for him, his pain is so clear and focused it cut through the screen and bored into my soul. He also provides the basis for some of the only hope in the film when he talks about a friend asking him how he will live his dash. Not understanding what the friend meant, Allen asks him to clarify. The friend explains on a tombstone is the date of birth and the date of death with a dash in between. The totality of everyone’s life is represented by that dash. The question comes from a poem entitled “How Do You Live Your Dash” by Linda Ellis. Allen wants to do more with his dash than deal in death.
While Herzog is against the death penalty, and says so during one of the interviews, the documentary doesn’t express an opinion about capital punishment. It clearly and calmly states the facts of the case, the outcome of the trials and the effect it had on the families of both the victims and the perpetrators. Herzog doesn’t appear to be trying to sway anyone in their opinion about execution as a deterrent to murder. He simply is shining a clear light on this one case and leaves it up to the audience to make their own decisions. My point of view (which I will keep to myself) wasn’t changed and I didn’t feel like my position was under attack or being bolstered. It looks at what is a controversial and emotional issue without an opinion. That is very rare in our aggressive partisan world.
“Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life” is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material and some disturbing images. Police evidence video is used in the documentary that shows the bodies of the victims. None of the bodies is shown fully exposed and there are times when you aren’t quite sure what you’re looking at. There is nothing terribly graphic about the images until you realize you’re looking at a dead person’s leg or back. We also see inside the home where one of the murders took place with obvious blood splattered and pooled. There are also descriptions of various violent acts.
The deaths of Sharon Stotler, Adam Stotler and Jeremy Richardson were vicious, cruel and meaningless. The three died because they owned a Chevy Camero and an SUV and Michael Perry and Jason Burkett wanted them without having to work for them. If the film does nothing else, perhaps it will make those who view it appreciate their lives a little more and be willing to take a few more chances to live it to the fullest.
Michael Perry was executed by lethal injection on July 1, 2010. Jason Burkett will have his first parole hearing sometime in the early 2040’s.
“Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life” gets five guitars.
The new movies coming to theatres this week are decidedly lighter fare than a documentary about triple homicide. Vote for the next movie I see and review.
Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked—When Alvin, Simon and Theodore go overboard from their cruise ship, the squeaky trio find themselves marooned on a tropical island.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows—Robert Downey Jr. is back on the case as London's greatest detective, investigating the evil plot a new criminal mastermind.
Stan’s Choice—Stan sees and reviews any film of his choice.
Release dates are subject to change and not all films may be shown in Knoxville, TN.
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