Into the Abyss is a shocking, saddening but infinitely powerful film by Werner Herzog. The film centers around two men, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, imprisoned for a triple homicide committed in Conroe Texas. Perry received a death sentence and Burkett received life. Herzog examines the issues surrounding the death penalty with surprising sensitivity and grace without being sanctimonious or overtly supporting either side of the argument – although Herzog maintains he is against capital punishment. Surrounded by the most heinous of criminals he is able to maintain a calm, collected and compassionate demeanor.
Texas is a state world-renowned for the sheer volume of executions it performs each year, more than the rest of the United States combined and more than most nations, China excluded, that impose the death penalty. The philosophy of ‘Kill and be Killed’ is deeply ingrained into the collective Texan psyche. Herzog portrays both sides of the argument, interviewing both the families of the victims and prison officers, including Captain Fred Allen, a former member of a Death Row ‘Tie-down team’ responsible for tying the prisoner to the gurney ready for the execution to begin.
Herzog takes a more passive stance here than in many of his other films and is not seen on-screen once during the course of the documentary. His questions are never probing, seemingly aimed merely at satisfying his own curiosity rather than in a directorial format. In his passiveness Herzog is able to extract intimate, honest and emotionally charged dialogue from his subjects making for very personal and saddening accounts of the tragedy that consumed their lives.
The documentary is interspersed with shocking imagery taken directly from the crime-scene, blood splattered on a wall, a blood trail on the floor, the victims house hours after the murder, and, perhaps most disturbing of all a body floating in a river. Despite the severity and abhorrence of their crimes Herzog is able to humanize the convicted, sympathizing their situation (no lean feat, these are people who killed multiple times to steal a car); this in itself is one of the greatest achievements of the documentary and a testament to his humanity. The film affords the viewer the disconcerting opportunity to gaze into the eyes of a remorseless murderer while marveling the façade of normality and personability he projects.
The documentary is a sobering, harrowing insight into the darkest part of the American Judicial System. Indeed the final interview conducted with Michael Perry was merely 8 days before he was executed. The film looks into the chaotic souls of the condemned, trying to find meaning in their arbitrarily horrific crimes. Powerfully directed and compellingly narrated, Herzog eloquently transcends the controversy of the issue leaving the viewer to come to their own conclusion. Into The Abyss has reiterated Herzog’s status as one of the most valuable directors of our time.
- Direction: 5/5
- Entertainment: 3/5
- Second Viewing Value: 5/5
- Overall: 4/5
- Best Documentary – BFI London Film Festival