Not to be confused with a James Cameron action-thriller, Into the Abyss is Werner Herzog's latest documentary, a plain-spoken examination of the death penalty and its morality. Does anyone, no matter their crimes, deserve to put to death? Does the threat of the death penalty deter criminals? As a so-called civilized culture, is it beneath us to execute people? Into the Abyss is a touching, emotional journey that, despite the filmmaker's clearly stated opinion, doesn't take sides.
To attack the subject, Herzog focuses on one audacious crime committed in the state of Texas. In October 2001, teenagers Michael Perry and his accomplice Jason Burkett murdered an affluent 50-year old, to steal her car for a joyride. To obtain access to the walled community where she lived, they also killed her son and one of his friends. Not long after, Perry and Burkett were arrested after bragging to friends about the murder and showcasing their newly "won" vehicles. Perry, who blamed Burkett for the murder, was sentenced to death, and Burkett, who blamed Perry, was sentenced to life in prison.
Into the Abyss focuses on their crime, the aftermath and the effect on the victims' families as well as those of the perpetrators. Herzog also interviews the two men, with an emphasis on Perry who was put to death only eight days after filming.
From the outset, Herzog, with his thick, semi-monotone German accent, declares that he believes the death penalty to be wrong. He is not a fan. He also tells Perry, during his initial interview, that he "does not necessarily mean that I have to like you, but I respect you and you're a human being and I believe human beings should not be executed. It's as simple as that."
That single statement describes Into the Abyss extremely well. While the movie definitely leans toward an anti-death penalty message at times, the message comes through naturally and without finesse from Herzog. Of course, the acclaimed filmmaker controls the content, but his interviews with various people - from the police to friends to former "executioners" - seem sincere and generally unbiased; the opinions of the interviewees surface on their own.
I've always made fun of Herzog as an interviewer; he's well spoken, but with his accent and personable approach to interviewing, he's not someone you'd pick, if you had a choice, to be your interviewer in a documentary. But Herzog is, of course, not simply an interviewer. He's a master filmmaker who knows how to get to the heart of a subject and to get people to open up, no matter what the topic.
With Into the Abyss, he delivers an exemplary film that works on so many levels.
The most touching interviews come from the most unlikeliest of sources: a former prison employee who assisted in the executions of over a hundred men, and Jason Burkett's father, a prison inmate. Fred Allen, former captain of Death House, the place where inmates are executed, walks Herzog through the procedure leading up to and following the execution. He details the steps in a straightforward manner, explaining that everything that is done is kept to schedule to keep employees from thinking too much about what they're doing. He acknowledges that after one specific execution, he couldn't handle it anymore, that it wasn't right and that he could no longer be involved. The interview, with a man unbiased toward the specific case at hand, is surprisingly gut-wrenching.
Equally so is the interview with Delbert Burkett. Burkett is a self-admitted screw-up, who has been in prison five times and is currently serving a 40-year sentence on eight felony counts. He's not a man who should evoke much sympathy, and yet his straightforward answers to the questions about his son are incredibly moving. "How would raise the children differently?" Herzog asked. The response: "It's hard to answer something you've never done." He's a failure and he knows it, and is saddened that his son, like him, will never see another day outside of prison walls. He failed himself, but he also failed his family. He is, in many ways, to blame for his son's crimes. Why his interview resonated with me so much I'll never understand, but perhaps it's because he exemplifies a glaring fact that no one seems willing to fix: the penal system punishes, but it fails to break the cycle. It doesn't try to rehabilitate, and its failures in that regards can have profound effects not only on the incarcerated individuals but those families and friends around them.
The interviews with the two murderers are less impactful, yet still interesting. Michael Perry, at 28, is still a wide-eyed kid. He smiles and seems personable, and says he's a Christian. He doesn't seem like someone who could kill anyone. And yet it's chilling that he doesn't seem remorseful for the murders he committed. Not really. He talks about them matter-of-factly. Herzog doesn't tackle the psychological profiles of the men except through the accounts of friends and family; it would have been interesting to see what a professional's opinion was of them, especially Perry. Perhaps his lack of remorse is intentional, the only way he can survive with death imminent. Or perhaps he's incapable of feeling remorse altogether?
Into the Abyss paints a picture of a crime, its lasting effect and the impact the resulting execution has on the various people involved. It never takes sides, an incredibly challenging task given Herzog's opinion and the story at hand. Herzog has done a masterful job conducting the interviews and piecing them together in a coherent, engaging way. Into the Abyss is one of the best movies of 2011.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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