Don`t get me wrong. I get a kick out of Michael Moore’s ballcap-wearing, working class schlub persona. And I find his docs entertaining and thought-provoking (although, as some of his critics have argued, it may be possible that he doesn’t let a stubborn fact or two get in the way of a good story.)
However, Werner Herzog’s approach seems somehow more suitable to the subject matter of the 2011 documentary Into the Abyss.
Among other themes, Mr. Herzog uses a triple homicide in a small Texas town to examine the senseless violence that seems to be an integral part of the fabric of American society.
According to a local police officer, Sandra Stotler, her 16 year old son, Adam and teenage friend Jeremy Richardson were killed over a car, Mrs. Stotler’s red Camaro, to be specific.
Ten years later Lisa Stotler-Balloun is still trying to process the reasons for the murders of her mother and brother, Adam.
So is Charles Richardson. The older brother of Jeremy Richardson, Charles has been in trouble with the law multiple times in his life. Wiping a tear from his eye, he says Jeremy was “a good kid … the golden child”. Most folks didn’t think Charles would live to see his 21st birthday.
Jared Tolbert, a friend of Michael Perry and Jason Burkett (convicted of the murders of Sandra Stotler, Adam Stotler and Jeremy Richardson) casually talks about being stabbed with a screwdriver, shrugging it off and going to work half an hour later.
Mr. Herzog also interviews a barmaid who worked in a nightclub in a nearby town called Cut and Shoot. (Hey, could I make up a name like that?)
In an interview with The Nation, Mr. Herzog tells reporter Art Berman, “I asked (Jared Tolbert) because he was a regular at the bar. And I said, ‘What happened in this bar?’ And he said, ‘Oh no, nothing.’ And then I say ‘Yeah, but the bartender said some bad things.’ ‘Oh yeah one girl’s throat was cut,’ he said. ‘Her boyfriend was kind of jealous because she hugged another guy.’ This kind of nonchalance is just unbelievable.”
Mr. Herzog never appears on camera. Instead, his thoughtful, probing questions are delivered off camera in a voice that is low key, non-judgmental and flavored with his soft, distinctive German accent. The filmmaker finds these folks fascinating. He is genuinely interested in their stories and the subjects repay him with some candid quotes.
In a wrenching jailhouse testimony,Delbert Burkett recalls spending Thanksgiving in prison with his two sons, Chris and Jason. (All three had been incarcerated.) The elder Burkett frankly admits he was a failure as a father. “Here I was handcuffed to my baby son (Jason) on a prison bus and, you know, I don`t think it gets much lower than that.”
In one gripping scene, Ms. Stotler-Balloun shares with the camera that her mother and brother are not the only members of her family that have perished in tragic circumstances.
“My mother was murdered, my father, my older brother and a family dog were hit by a train, my grandfather had a stroke, my uncle overdosed on heroin, my stepbrother shot himself because he had pancreatic cancer … all of this was in six years. ”
That`s another thing I like about Mr. Herzog`s approach. He knows when to cut away and when to leave the camera trained on a subject`s face. (Obviously, this is not a film for viewers with short attention spans.)
Ms. Stotler-Balloun talks about witnessing the execution of Matthew Perry with a chilling sort of resignation: “I heard his mother cry, and they gave him the injection … One tear fell down his face. One tear. And it was over.”