Werner Herzog's latest, Into the Abyss (showtimes), is a documentary about the aftermath of murder. In 2001, three people were killed in Conroe, Texas. Teenagers Michael Perry and Jason Burkett were convicted of the crimes. Burkett was given a life sentence, while Perry received the death penalty. In 2010, the state of Texas killed Michael Perry. Into the Abyss includes interviews with the prisoner eight days before his death.
Herzog (Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Rescue Dawn, Grizzly Man) states clearly that he is against the death penalty, but avoids tub-thumping. There is no narration. The filmmaker stays off camera, asking questions in a disarmingly matter-of-fact fashion. He treats each interviewee kindly, while making it clear that his respect for their humanity should not be mistaken as an endorsement of their actions. Mournful music accompanies the occasional photo montages, as if any further reminders are needed to remind us how sad it all is.
So what's the difference between this and any typical true crime episode of Dateline or other documentary TV series? Into the Abyss avoids the sensationalism of the lurid TV fare, maintaining a low-key tone. Hierzog's interview style is different as well. He isn't interested in unraveling the crimes or getting confessions out of the convicted men. He is more curious about how the process works for various individuals connected to the crimes and what emotions are stirred by their experiences.
We meet the pastor who comforts the condemned and an executioner who quit his job (and forfeited his pension in doing so), along with police officers and relatives of both the victims and the men convicted of killing them. Some of the conversations are heartbreaking, some are pathetic, a few seem unnecessary.
Don't expect any revelations here. There is no sense of discovery in Into the Abyss. The film is ultimately a series of portraits, some of which I won't soon forget. The tortured ex-executioner, the heartsick pastor, the guy that got speared through the chest and saw no need to go to the hospital, Perry's father — who is also in prison for murder ... and Michael Perry himself. With his goofy smile he still looks like a teenager, proclaiming his innocence as the date of his death draws near. He looks ahead to his execution with the belief that he'll soon be in heaven.
Into the Abyss is about our humanity. It's a minor Herzog film, but one well worth a look.