Werner Herzog's second documentary of 2011 shows him at his least abstract. His previous doc, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, showed him experimenting with 3D and was a pretty straight-forward effort until the epilogue, but Into the Abyss is Herzog at his most focused. A rarity, he never appears onscreen and his iconic voice provides no narration, only appearing to quietly ask questions from behind the camera. Into the Abyss is populated with traditional Herzogian figures, people so delightfully weird they couldn't possibly be fiction, but the subject matter is far from delightful. Rushed into theatres after a surging interest in capital punishment, the film profiles two convicted killers, one's impending death by lethal injection, their crime, the climate of capital punishment, and those acquainted with them in various ways.
It's not Herzog's style to make the documentary equivalent of a persuasive essay and although he states that he's against capital punishment, his film makes no such statement. It looks at each person, presents each detail, and allows us to interpret this information ourselves. As you can expect from the work of this great filmmaker, the questions we're left with are far greater than a simple vote of "for" or "against" in regards to the death penalty.
Michael Perry is on death row for a triple homicide in Conroe, Texas. His accomplice, Jason Burkett, is serving a life sentence and is not eligible for parole until 2041. There is no implication of doubt over their guilt despite declarations of innocence, particularly from Perry. Both admit to being involved, but Perry pins the guilt on Burkett, while Burkett does likewise to Perry. We learn that the reason for the murders (as if there could be one) was a Camaro that the two wanted to steal. This led to the murder of the owner, her teenage son, and his friend. A senseless act if ever there was one.
Both Perry and Burkett appear, answering the direct, curious, and sometimes difficult questions posed by Herzog. Aside from these two, Herzog speaks with relatives of the victims. One woman, who lost her mother and brother that night, recounts the tragedy and how nearly everyone in her family died in a six-year period, including the family dog. Another, who lost his brother, discusses the pain of that loss. Melyssa Thompson-Burkett is a young woman who married Burkett in prison and is pregnant with his child. When confronted with the fact that their only physical contact is hand-holding during visits, a few feet from a guard, she's ambivalent about the circumstances. Then there's Captain Fred who, after overseeing more than 100 executions, quit his job at the cost of losing his pension because he simply couldn't do it anymore.
The interviews range from fascinating to tragic to quietly amusing. When Herzog travels to the little town of (get ready) Cut and Shoot, Texas he talks to a former acquaintance of Jason Burkett. The man, illiterate and fascinated by the German director he's speaking with, calmly recounts a story of how Burkett stabbed him with a screwdriver, "about that long" and, unphased, he skipped the hospital to go to work. When Herzog observes the man's girlfriend's name tattooed on his arm, he asks what will become of it if the relationship fails. "I guess I'll have to add `sucks' right there," he says, or something to that effect. This sequence is fascinating in the miraculous way Herzog illustrates the man as a heroic figure in this town; a blue-collar, hard-worker, who tossed aside a knife during a fight so he'd be able to go home to his kids. He's one of those personalities just tailor-made for a Herzog documentary.
The most heartbreaking subject is Jason's father Delbert Burkett, also serving a life sentence in prison. He blames himself for Jason's poor upbringing and reflects on how his poor choices and neglect as a parent caused Jason to turn out the way he did. The truth and eloquent, hardened emotion that Herzog captures here could easily be the inspiration behind the film's title; it's here that Herzog actually enters the abyss of his subject's soul.
Into the Abyss is seemingly light on Herzog's not quite fiction, not quite factual "ecstatic truth" approach to documentary filmmaking, described by Herzog as "a merely superficial truth." It's one of his most quietly provoking films, silently moving from interview to interview and just looking. If any filmmaker is more qualified to go into the abyss simply to look at what's down there, it's Herzog. This latest effort is a fascinating exercise in what you can find if you just look.
Due to its lugubrious pacing and subject matter, the pacing is slow at times but it's hard to lose interest. This is the rare kind of documentary that will make you both think and feel. There are lot of questions and a lot of possible answers, but Herzog leaves us to choose which one we feel is closest to the right one. Other directors would have chosen a potentially innocent inmate and created a film based on the question of their guilt or innocence. By taking on two obviously guilty subjects, telling one of them "I don't have to like you," and examining the crime, the punishment, and the senselessness of it all, Herzog has substantially broadened the discussion. It may not have any immediate startling impact, but it will stay with you. It's one of the most important documentaries of 2011 and further evidence that Herzog is one of the most indispensable living documentarians.