Interest in death row is nothing new. I would wager that most people would confess a morbid interest in the inmates and crimes. Only recently documentarian Louis Theroux visited various different high security prisons in America. So what can Werner Herzog bring to the table?
Herzog brings experience. We never see him, just hear his voice as he interviews his subjects. He talks to people with compassion, rarely straying into prejudice. He asks penetrating questions, and receives honest, emotionally open answers. People trust in him, more than a charming, bespectacled English reporter.
The film essentially comprises of a series of a number of interviews, mostly static talking heads, interspersed with original footage of the chilling crime scene tapes. Instead of collecting a wide array of interviews from various inmates, Herzog focuses on one subject named Michael Perry, and the people surrounding the crime.
In the film, Perry is due to be executed in 8 days, for the murder of 3 people, over a sports car that he and his accomplices desired. When we first see him, filmed through a pane of protective glass, it is hard to equate him with a merciless killer. He is smiley and goofy, and could pass for a 17 year old. He seems oddly bouncy, somewhat in denial of his impending fate. It is fairly tragic, his futile hope for some kind of miracle. We as an audience realise that we are by now watching someone who has already passed on.
We meet the relatives of the victims. Both siblings of the deceased, and irreparably scarred by their losses, and the nature of the deaths. Both of their lives (they are from different families) are racked with tragedy. Suicides, illnesses, convictions are rife in their bloodlines. We begin to get a picture of the kind of lives that people live with in this corner of the world. Tragedy seems to be carved into the landscape.
Jason Burkett, Perry’s accomplice, is serving a life sentence, and has married a death row ‘groupie’. In one rare moment of (dark) humour in the film, his partner describes how she fell in love while working on his case. One of the most heartbreaking/disturbing revelations of the film, we learn that Burkett’s father is serving 40 years in a jail directly opposite Jason’s. The father racked, with grief and regret, describes having Thanksgiving dinner with his two sons (the other is also incarcerated in a local prison), and contemplating his failures. What is really striking is the cycle of violence and misdemeanour that seems to riddle the families. It would seem like this is a common occurrence.
The film works well because Herzog lets the stories tell themselves, lets the subjects unload their emotional baggage. It is an intense, emotional piece of work. Herzog is a stern but fair interviewer, never manipulated by his subjects nor condemning them too harshly. An incredible film.