On the Row

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT: Prisoner Jason Burkett is interviewed for 'Into the Abyss.'

THE MIDDLE-AGED German is all the more emotional for his dispassionateness. There's a tone of respect in that easy-to-imitate voice—an oncologist's note of quiet doom. Into the Abyss is Werner Herzog's excellent documentary on a triple murder in Texas, carried out by a pair of then-teenagers. One of the convicted was the chipmunklike Michael Perry, who, as of the time of the film, was awaiting execution. His partner in crime, Jason Burkett, received a life sentence. When Burkett went to prison, he joined one of his closest relations, who was already serving an extended sentence.

Into the Abyss isn't obsessed with violence. The crime was quick, banal and commonplace, with clear motives. The object was a red Camaro that the two killers wanted. When Herzog shows us, in several camera angles, what finally became of this prize, it's an indelible lesson in ultimate folly and waste.

In the presence of Perry, a man who can only really focus on his own suffering, Herzog is sympathetic, but he's not a tool. Eventually, Herzog leaves the prison and visits the city where the murders took place. Herzog juxtaposes the two sides of the tracks in Conroe, Texas: the gated community where the murder occurred, and the rougher side of town. He talks to people who knew people. We meet a female bartender at the bucket-of-blood tavern where Perry stopped to show off his brand-new stolen ride. And the filmmaker rounds the circle of misery caused by these foolish, drugged kids, by speaking to others affected. One is a prison death-house captain who quit after ministering to too many executions. Another is the victim's daughter, who imprisoned herself in her home for years. Lastly is a woman who loves Burkett with a great reservoir of hope.

Into the Abyss makes a subtle yet damning case against the death penalty, shot in a state that adores the process beyond reason. Even Gov. Ann Richards, of sainted memory to Democrats, executed 50 people. The film makes its point without underlining it—surely even the most beloved custom has to yield some day to common sense.

Into the Abyss

PG-13; 107 min.

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