Werner Herzog Dives Into the Abyss of the American Death Penalty System

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Courtesy of CDTV

Nine years ago, two young men from Conroe, Texas, wanted a joyride in a red Camaro; and because they shot and killed three people while stealing it, Jason Burkett got life in prison, and Michael Perry got death. By Jul. 1, 2010, when the state of Texas killed Perry by lethal injection, a tree that had taken root under the impounded Camaro grew up through the floorboards, its branches curled around the seats. Police had to move the car to another lot; it was still an item of evidence when a detective showed it to Werner Herzog.

The subjects of Herzog’s documentaries are typically visionaries seeking to triumph over impossible odds, from The Flying Doctors of East Africa in 1969 to the recklessly bear-loving Grizzly Man in 2005. In his last film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the mad-genius German director found kinship in the anonymous artists who drew their dreams 30,000 years ago in France’s Chauvet caves. Into the Abyss, Herzog’s Death Row doc, has no heroes, only villains and victims: the killers and their families, and the families of those they killed. Virtually everybody on screen in this modern In Cold Blood has been cursed by tragedy. They might be the survivors, or the carriers, of a devastating local plague.

(MORE: See In Cold Blood in TIME’s list of the 100 greatest nonfiction books)

The immediate casualties of this 2002 crime were Sandra Stotler, a nurse who lived in the gated community of Highland Ranch, her son Adam and Adam’s friend Jeremy Richardson. But the circle of death spreads far beyond them. Over a six-year period Sandra’s daughter Lisa Stotler-Balloun lost not only her mother and brother but everyone else in her family, from natural or violent causes. After this grievous Old Testament trial, Lisa disconnected her phone, telling Herzog, “I figure if I don’t get close to anybody, I won’t get hurt again.” Jeremy’s older brother Charles sports two teardrop tattoos: one for his murdered brother, the other for his sister, killed in a highway accident. Their father is in prison for murder, and Charles also has a rap sheet: “Everybody said that I was the one that was supposed to be dead before I was 21, and not Jeremy.”

While the movie shows sympathy for the victims, it evokes some pity for the devils. As an infant, Jason Burkett contracted neuroblastoma, which required 18 surgeries before he was five; he was not expected to outlive his childhood. His father Delbert, who as a teen won a football scholarship to the University of Texas, dropped out of school and became a thief to support his drug and alcohol addiction; he has spent 40 years locked up on eight separate felony counts. Jason’s brother Chris is also in jail. The three were allowed to have Thanksgiving dinner together, behind bars.

Thousands of such hapless criminals found their final rest in a state cemetery, where the unclaimed bodies lie in graves with no names, only numbers. Nearby stands a death-house chaplain, Richard Lopez, tears coursing down his face. “I cannot stop the process,” he says. “I wish I could.” He means the process of capital punishment — the state of Texas has killed more than 450 men (and six women) since it resumed the death penalty in 1982, whereas California, whose population is 50% larger, has executed 13. But the chaplain might also be referring to the social process of breeding criminals with low intellectual horizons and scant chance of escaping their sordid, sorry fates.

Dim bulbs both, Perry and Burkett bragged about their carjack murders that same night; soon they were arrested. Perry, boyish and smiling in the interview that Herzog conducted a week before the execution, blamed Burkett for the heist gone wrong. He was found guilty and condemned to death. But in a separate trial, Delbert Burkett emerged from his jail cell into the courtroom to plead for Jason. “Please don’t kill my son,” he sobbed. The vote was 10 to 2 for conviction, and  Jason was sentenced to life in prison.

The film’s catalogue of catastrophes, either committed or endured, may make Into the Abyss sound like an unrelenting ordeal. And no question, compared with these real-life horrors among the rural underclass, the fictional Winter’s Bone was a summer camp. Like any Herzog doc, though, the movie percolates with weird humor. The director peppers his subjects with questions like (to Chaplain Gomez) “Please describe an encounter with a squirrel.” Or he’ll luck into a truly Herzogian camera presence. Standing in a barnyard and frequently interrupting his colloquy to turn and spit, Jared Talbert recalls when Jason Burkett stabbed him in the side with a Phillips screwdriver, “all the way to the handle,” and another time Jason shot at him; the bullet missed. Talbert, who works at a paint-and-body shop, was illiterate until he learned to read while doing time on a felony conviction. Now he’s got a girlfriend, Bailey, and a tattoo of her name on his forearm. What if they break up? asks Herzog. Talbert points to his arm and replies, “I guess I’m gonna hafta get ‘Bailey sucks’ right there.”

Stranger still is the movie’s inspirational lift. It comes courtesy of Jason’s wife Melyssa, who met the convict in jail; she and her father are supervising Burkett’s legal appeals. A Nebraska native, Melyssa often drove 750 miles from Omaha to Abilene to see him. Driving out of the prison after one visit, she says, she saw a rainbow and felt, “This is a sign that this is the boy I’m supposed to be with.” From his cell, Jason saw it too.

A standard-issue Euro-liberal, Herzog believes that capital punishment is barbaric; but his natural curiosity for the wonders and depths of human experience encourages him and his audience to accept the meanest among us at face value. One critic, Matt Goldberg of Collider.com, has called Herzog “a tragedy vampire, sucking the drama out of the lives of others while offering nothing in return.” The first part of that description could fit most documentarians, indeed most journalists, who cover sensational life-or-death matters. But even viewers with a low threshold of morbidity should get plenty in return from Into the Abyss. It provides intimate glimpses of people usually seen, and then only briefly, as faces on a post-office wall or numbers in a cemetery. Herzog asks viewers not to agree with his position on the state’s right to kill, but to spend some time with folks who would kill, or be killed, for the sake of a red Camaro.

(MORE: See Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God in the All-TIME 100 Movies)