Review: Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life

★★★★

Eight days following the first interview, Michael Perry will be brought into a small chamber, laid upon a table and injected with a combination of chemicals that will end his life. Werner Herzog’s newest documentary Into the Abyss is a deeply disturbing look into the lives of Conroe, Texas, inmates – like Perry – as well as other people from the nation’s death penalty capital. Rather than making a documentary to challenge the practice of capital-punishment – something Herzog makes clear he is against – Herzog offers a collection of interviews ranging from those on death row to the families of victims of violent crimes and even those involved in the actual euthanizing of inmates. The vicious cycle of violence won’t compel anyone to change his or her stance on the subject but it will provide a sort of philosophical reflection on the value of life.

In the town of Conroe it seems that time spent behind bars is nothing if not the norm of every person’s life. Michael Perry gunned down three people with his accomplice Jason Burkett with the goal of stealing a car. Following their case, which occurred in 2001, Herzog focuses his camera’s gaze on the people of this town and how they deal with the prison system and their feelings on capital punishment. As mentioned above, Herzog makes his opinion very clear as he tells Perry, point-blank, “I don’t like you,” instantly removing the grin off his face. Herzog does add, “but I don’t believe human beings should be executed.”

Rather than making an clear argument against and exploring different cases of wrongful execution or newfound forensic evidence Herzog has chosen a case of mindless brutality and clear guilt. This helps to eliminate any sense of bias the audience may have towards Herzog’s personal stance on the subject, allowing them to follow these individuals in a way never before seen. Perry sits behind the glass happily answering any questions Herzog has and constantly reiterating his innocence in the eyes of God as a montage of evidence appears and a confession by Burkett of their crimes. As Herzog probes these two it becomes clear he has zero interest in the truth – according to Perry or Burkett – but in the human aspect, how these are dealing with the situation they are now in.

Additional interviews are conducted with the daughter and sister of one of the victims as well as the police officer responsible for the inmates during their final hours. Each provides a truly depressing look, the latter more so than the former. The woman has lost two of the most important people in her life but as the execution nears and ultimately happens she is obviously granted some sort of peace by it. On the other hand, the police officer shakily talks with Herzog explaining what it’s like to be with these people who know they are about to die. He talks specifically about what it was like to put a woman to death for the first time, which had a certain repugnant affect on him to the point of sacrificing retirement benefits and quitting his post.

The film is an absolute wonder that is as visually striking as its subject matter. Herzog has a keen eye for B-roll footage that is incomparable. He captures the open green fields of Texas, the blue sky intermittently filled by white clouds and the and the cemetery where convicts are buried if no family claims them – no names on the headstones just dates, numbers. Even these open pastures of death seem freer than the confines of a prison cell.

Reviewer – David Rowley
Rating – 15
Release Date – 30th March, 2012
Director – Werner Herzog
Writer – Werner Herzog
Cast – Michael Perry, Jason Burkett, Werner Herzog (Narrator)

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