Sunday, August 26, 2012

"Into the Abyss" with Charles Richardson and Jason Burkett (2011)

This is a film I was prepared to dislike. I only happened upon it when I saw it laying in the living room. Sue had taken it out of the library after I had passed it up. I am not against the death penalty, and this film by Werner Herzog seemed to; at least by the synopsis on the film’s case; be pandering to a more liberal audience in this regard. It was only by chance that I happened to have a few hours free the other evening to watch this film.  And though my mind concerning the death penalty has remained unchanged by the film, in the hands of a master director such as Werner Herzog, the film did make me think about the need for the ultimate penalty, as well as what drives people to commit horrendous crimes in the first place.
The main focus of the film is on the death of 3 people, Jeremy Richardson and his mother, and a friend, in Conroe, Texas and told through the eyes of both the defendant himself, as well as the victim’s family. The opening scene, or Prologue, is conducted as an interview with the Minister who is in charge of the death house and is the last individual, aside from the guards, with whom the inmate will have contact. He is very moving when he speaks of how he always asks permission to accompany the condemned man until his final moment on the gurney, and actually lays a hand on the foot of the prisoner so that he does not feel abandoned at the moment of death. I found this to be very impressive. But when he goes on to describing his almost having run over a squirrel in a golf cart one day, and then compares that circumstance to people who have gone astray, he kind of loses me. I can’t seem to make that massive leap from accidently killing a squirrel to actually carrying out a murder. But then I have to stop and think; isn’t that what the state does when it applies the death penalty? Aren’t they, themselves, planning a murder?

I had to dispel that assertion by noting the difference between killing and murdering. Killing is something which is borne of necessity; in order to eat, or protect your own life would be the two immediate analogies which spring to mind. Murder, on the other hand, is most often done for greed, or lust, both emotions which can be controlled. So, then doesn’t that make this a mental health issue rather than a criminal one? Should people with obvious mental problems be put to death? Is the ability to kill someone really a mental defect at all, or just a matter of the utmost selfishness? And if that is true, does the state sponsored killing hold any more merit than the crime of murder itself?
The film tackles all of these questions by looking at the case of Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, 2 young men who connived their way into a gated community and then continued to murder 3 people as they robbed the home of the Richardson family. Drawing on interviews with law enforcement officers who were involved in the case, as well as family members from both sides; the accused as well as the victim’s; allows the viewer to analyze the facts as they apply to the questions posed above.
There is much more to this film than I have tackled here. This is a hot button topic which touches on the social disorders which make the death penalty an option, as well as exploring the sometimes arbitrary nature of its application.

Although this film may not shake, or even rattle your belief for, or against the death penalty, it is worth watching, if only because it makes you think. And, in the midst of an election year filled with knee jerk reactionaries; and a few real jerks to boot; thinking is in high demand.

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