Into the Abyss | Film review
In his best documentary in years, Werner Herzog takes on the death penalty.
Has Werner Herzog finally found a subject so grave and sobering, so heavy on the heart and mind, that words escape him? In Into the Abyss, the loquacious German director travels to Texas to talk with a death-row inmate, as well as the various lost souls caught in the orbit of the man’s decade-old crime. Absent is Herzog’s running voiceover—that chatty mix of philosophical rumination and deadpan asides, delivered in heavy Teutonic accent—that’s come to define the director’s recent documentaries. Even without the editorializing, this is undeniably a Herzogian enterprise; its vision of a present irreparably soiled by the mistakes of the past recalls such nonfiction triumphs as The White Diamond and Ballad of the Little Soldier.
The film begins in full-on procedural mode, immersing us in the forensic details of a murder investigation, before shifting its attention to the alleged killers: Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, convicted of triple homicide in 2001. Burkett got life in prison, Perry a death sentence; though both men claim innocence, the evidence is pretty conclusive, and Herzog takes their guilt as a given. What he’s interested in is the way violent crime taints all those involved, from the perpetrators to the surviving family members to those charged with administering state-sanctioned “justice.” You may not leave the film with a new opinion about capital punishment, but Herzog’s empathy for the condemned is so potent and persuasive it might give even Rick Perry pause.