Reviews: Death and Wigs

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Friday means movies are opening, which means movie reviews! Today we cover a Werner Herzog documentary about capital punishment and an Adam Sandler movie about plain old regular punishment.

One of the pleasures of watching Werner Herzog's documentaries -- whether he's telling the story of a man obsessed with bears or exploring Antarctica -- is that he always seems to be discovering the world right alongside you. He seems to endeavor on a project without any particular agenda beyond getting the lay of the land, and he goes about this seemingly unafraid of taking narrative detours or wandering into strange tangents. He seems genuinely, almost boyishly, fascinated by his subjects. He maybe insinuates himself into the scene a bit too often, an unfortunate hallmark of less artistically minded documentarians like Michael Moore or [shudder] Morgan Spurlock, but still his nonfiction films always resonate with that same awe of organic revelation. He had no idea! But now, thanks to him, we all know.

But in his latest documentary, Into the Abyss, he begins with the slightest of theses already in place. The film is a look at the death penalty, and at the crater left behind by violent crime, through the lens of a particular murder, or murders, that took place in Conroe, Tex., in 2001. On October 24th of that year, two young men named Jason Burkett and Michael Perry shot and killed three people: 50-year-old Sandra Stotler, her 17-year-old son Adam, and his friend Jeremy Richardson, 18. The two boys were after a newly purchased fire red Camaro that was parked in the Stotlers' garage. This was not part of some sadistic ritual or drug mania. It was a simple, stupid robbery gone horribly awry. Burkett received a life sentence with possibility of parole in 2041, while Perry was sent to death row. That is where Herzog finds him nine years later, in the summer of 2010, when he is eight days away from execution.

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The film that follows is a tragic but gentle study of lives forever stunted and thwarted by a few single moments of terrible action. Herzog interviews not just the two killers, but also family members of those slain and town locals with some connection to the convicted. He speaks to a death row chaplain and a prison guard who says he was present, and actively involved in, the execution of some 120 inmates. Hanging over the proceedings is Herzog's statement, made near the very beginning of the film, that he is vehemently opposed to the death penalty. Because we know this, because we know this is a film with a fixed ideology, much of it seems a bit warped or lopsided. Not that Herzog shows any egregious sympathy for the killers exactly, but rather we're left to wonder if perhaps he made the film with a plan already in mind rather than letting himself learn and explore as he went.

We don't, for example, hear from any particularly vocal capital punishment advocates. The daughter and sister of the two murdered Stotlers tells Herzog that she went to Perry's execution and that she was glad that she did, but then Herzog's camera lingers on her for a little, almost unnatural extra bit of time, creating an awkward silence that seems intent on prodding her into saying what she says next, which is a general sort of "No one should kill anyone" sigh that, finally, seems to satisfy Herzog. He also coaxes some grand statements out of the former prison guard, forcibly imbuing the man's decision to leave his post with a bit more grand philosophy than it perhaps initially had. It's strange to see Herzog in such standardly political polemic mode (if we can call his soft-spoken, whisperingly gonzo style polemical), if only because in his recent documentaries he's been such a quietly insightful digger, someone who seems reluctant to pass judgment on any particular thing until he has examined all of its bones. (And even then he might shrug and throw his hands up to the sky and wander away.) Here he's a bit more determined, a bit more monolithic. It doesn't quite suit him.

That's not to say that he doesn't make a heartbreakingly compelling case for how foolish and futile and terrible this strange and atavistic practice of government killing is. As he switches from interviewing the family of the deceased to the father of one of the convicted (who is also serving a life sentence for various crimes), we see that the process of exacting retribution and revenge only expands the sphere of grief, gives more power to the initial crime, feeds it more souls. It's the same point that Tim Robbins made in his wonderful and galvanizing feature film Dead Man Walking. In fact, Into the Abyss is reminiscent of many films, documentary or not, about the ripple effects of a crime, about the despairing futility of capital punishment, about the ways we categorize humanity. He doesn't really mine any new insights or point us to previously unexpored angles. He merely reminds us of what we've been shown before: That we keep death row inmates spirited away behind walls of concrete and iron because to see them head-on, to confront them as people, makes it all the more difficult to stay resolute about killing them.

Into the Abyss is beautifully made, it is Herzog after all, but there's something awfully square and familiar about it. It leaves you feeling nothing more than a general sense of "Boy, lots of awful things happen." Ultimately, the movie fails at being a fresh look at capital punishment. (If that even was Herzog's true intent.) But it does at least lightly succeed at being a glancing look at how one lone and terrible night has irrevocably changed many lives, from the grieving daughter and sister to the unsettling young woman who married Burkett after they exchanged a few letters in some kind of prison penpal program. (And who insists on his innocence.) Herzog found a strange and broken community in this corner of Texas, and his camera quietly watches them for a small bit of time. Nothing more. Despite its serious themes and its grand title, Into the Abyss is an oddly slight film. It doesn't do any disservice to its subjects, both human and moral, but it doesn't illuminate them either.


The director Dennis Dugan, however, does nothing but illuminate the happenings in Adam Sandler's latest comedy Jack & Jill, which has the flat, childish, overly lit brightness of so many studio comedies these days. Flat, childish, and bright is actually a decent way to describe this film in its entirety -- it's a strangely not terrible movie that is, though, eventually done-in by a consistent reliance on the crude and the basic.

The business: Adam Sandler plays both Jack, a successful L.A. ad guy (he makes TV commercials), and his sister Jill, a lonely spinster who still lives in her dead mother's house in the Bronx and, you get the impression, doesn't get out much. Jill comes to visit, Jack gets all annoyed, bland and humorless wife character (Katie Holmes) tells him to be nice, little kids take a shine to the weirdo, Jack ends up needing Jill for a work thing, etc. The big joke of the film, evident in the "...and it ain't pretty" tagline on all the ads, is that Adam Sandler does not make a terribly attractive woman. "Haha, ugly woman!" the movie shrieks and points, and we the discerning anti-Sandlerites in the audience roll our eyes and put our heads in our hands, overcome with the cheapness and crudeness of the whole thing.

And it is crude. There is a volume of fart and poop humor that will likely go unrivaled in any other movie this year, and there is a strange, cartoonishly brutal level of violence. That's all for the kids, and they will inevitably laugh and hoot at all of it, but will they really get why it's funny ("funny"?) that Al Pacino, playing an exaggerated (but really, one starts to wonder, exactly how exaggerated) version of himself, has the hots for this beast in a wig? Will they get any of the (surprisingly sly) theater jokes peppered throughout or appreciate Sandler's usual retinue of former SNLers, from Tim Meadows in a thankless supporting role to a depressingly brief Dana Carvey cameo? They probably won't. Which leaves us to assume, grimly, that this movie is partly for adults.

Though really is it that grim? There's actually a strange charm to Sandler's monstrous Jill creation. She's garishly aggravating and is often operatically dumb, but there are moments, small asides and half-swallowed remarks, little lonely details about her life dropped along the way, that help fill her in -- Sandler comes dangerously close at times to actually creating a fully human character instead of a tottering assemblage of tasteless jokes. He gives Jill brief moments where she approaches something verging on reality, but just before she gets there some Sandlerian knee-jerk instinct kicks in and Jill has to run to the bathroom to violently expel a chimichanga. Sandler seems scared that we might notice that really he's having a blast playing this peculiar woman, so the minute we, really meaning he, start to like her, he makes her do a terrible gross thing. It's Frankensteinian. Adam, stop being so mean to your own creation!

So yes, it's true, there are glimmers of good in this oftentimes hyperactively off-putting film, but it's mostly a collection of squandered opportunities and half-starts that go nowhere. It's also embarrassingly full of product placement, the climax of which is Al Pacino doing a Dunkin' Donuts Dunkacino rap at the end of the film. It's a bit cliche to complain about an actor of Pacino's caliber debasing himself so, especially since he seems to be having so much fun, but good grief, Mr. Pacino. If you want to do a comedy have someone find you a comedy. Because this... this is firmly beneath you.

Still, though. Something lingers. Some strange attraction. A dare to you, Mr. Sandler: Make a little indie movie with Jill. Just see where she takes you. Don't be afraid that you're getting too real or too serious. It's a good bet you'd enjoy it. Leave the diarrhea jokes to someone else, you've done your time in that realm. Now it's time to explore your deeper inner selves. Maybe Werner can help you.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.