One of the joys in watching a Werner Herzog film is the fact that he seeks out topics and subjects that are so uniquely interesting. His recent work includes the storied “Grizzly Man”, which introduced us to the fascinating Timothy Treadwell, who famously spent summers living in the wilderness alongside grizzly bears; bears who would eventually take his life. Herzog traveled to the remote world of Antarctica and documented the lives of a disparate group of people who live and work in the Southernmost continent on Earth in “Encounters At The End Of The World”. Earlier in 2011, Herzog released “Cave Of Forgotten Dreams” and was granted incredible and stringent access to the Chauvet Cave in southern France, which was uncovered for the first time in 1994 and contains countless drawings, paintings, and hieroglyphics. So, with other documentaries in Herzog’s career covering subjects as diverse as a Vietnam War prisoner’s escape (Little Dieter Wants To Fly), Russian mysticism (Bells From The Deep), and the inventor of a teardrop-shaped aircraft (The White Diamond), the notion of Herzog covering a topic as straightforward as capital punishment is something of a bold move for this truly unconventional filmmaker.
“Into The Abyss” takes us to Conroe, Texas and directly into the details surrounding a 2001 triple-homicide case where one of two convicted murderers, Michael Perry, is a mere 8 days away from his execution by lethal injection. The other convicted criminal, Jason Burkett, is serving a 40-year life sentence. Jason is likely going to get out when he is in his late 50’s.
Herzog opens his film in stunning fashion, interviewing a chaplain who has overseen numerous executions in his home state. From these first moments, “Into The Abyss” is disquieting as the chaplain, interviewed by an off-camera Herzog in front of a cemetery full of executed convicts, shifts his eyes and looks around, speaking matter-of-factly about those who have died. However he chokes up and needs a few moments to collect himself when he recounts the story of nearly running over a squirrel with a golf cart. Nevermind the human beings who have died, but it’s that squirrel story which forces the chaplain to comment that “all life is precious.” The context is shocking.
Herzog, who states very early on that he is against capital punishment, nonetheless masterfully deconstructs the details of the murders, incorporating comments from family members of the victims, news stories, archived police crime scene investigative video and photographs, and interviews with Perry and Burkett. Herzog becomes so engrossed in the story that he abandons what appears to be his initial mission – to condemn capital punishment, and instead moves to the center, allowing we as viewers to see the facts, meet those involved and affected by the tragic details of a robbery attempt gone horrifically wrong, and then consider our own stance and the senselessness of all of it.
As Herzog continues to peel back more and more layers, we find that Burkett is married, which in and of itself provides some pulpy intrigue, and his father, Delbert, happens to stay “across the street”… serving time for his own series of misguided choices involving petty crime and drug possession. Through his distinct and impeccable interviewing style, Herzog taps an emotional vein with Delbert Burkett, who starts to question his life and the effects his decision-making has had on his son. We learn that the sister of two of the victims watched Michael Perry’s execution and she offers up the comment that she found the experience satisfying and an event which provided closure. All the while, she is on the verge of falling apart and begins reiterating her comments almost as if she has somehow burdened herself with the task of repeating those thoughts an indiscriminate number of times until they maybe start to become truth she can believe in.
A daring and fascinating storyteller, Herzog may ultimately not reach any profound heights with his ultimate analysis, but “Into The Abyss” is a masterful expose into the unending rhetorical of how people can justify supporting capital punishment while espousing pro-life ideologies. Herzog may not get his answers, but by refraining from preaching from his pulpit and searching for answers as to why he believes the things he believes, he has created a brilliant conversation starter; one that will stay with you for days after the film reaches its conclusion.