Film maker Werner Herzog is against the death penalty. He tells us that verbally, right at the beginning of this documentary. He then goes on to make the most unbiased documentary I have ever seen.
I consider myself to be against the death penalty, but if I’m honest with myself I may be likely to rethink that view if anyone ever hurt any of my loved ones. I watched this film less than 24 hours after the Aurora movie theatre shooting, so the subject was on my mind.
The aim of the film is to try to understand what makes people kill, and why a state kills. The story centres around two convicted criminals in Texas, one on death row, about to be killed just eight days after the interview on film. Herzog describes this as “a gaze into the abyss of the human soul”.
Herzog interviews the family of the deceased, and discusses their feelings about their loss. He shows police crime scene footage of where the murders took place and where the bodies were found, and interviews the police. He goes to the prisons and talks to the murderers. 28-year-old Michael Perry particularly made my skin crawl. Herzog tells him that he doesn’t have to like him to believe that he shouldn’t be killed for what he’s done. We hear from a pastor who accompanies criminals while they are executed and an executioner himself. We hear from the murderers friends and a very odd woman who has met and married the murderer who is not on death row, Jason Burkett, while he was in jail.
The story is reminiscent of Truman Capote’s chilling masterpiece In Cold Blood. The two convicted young men killed three people for just a car. It seems to me that Herzog has deliberately chosen such a shocking case, where the murderers are young but also quite unpleasant, and as we see from the interviews; unstable, and the killings have been done for such a small thing as a car, in order to help us see both sides of the argument.
All the evidence suggests that these two people wouldn’t be particularly valuable members of society, but if you are against the death penalty, then what do you do with them? Unfortunately Herzog doesn’t seem to have any ideas, or if he does, he doesn’t share them here.
Every effort is made to present us with all the facts. It’s subtle and thought-provoking, and asks the viewer to make their own mind up.