Into the Abyss
by Jef Burnham
Available April 10, 2012 on Blu-ray and DVD from IFC Films/MPI Home Video.
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Werner Herzog’s latest documentary, Into the Abyss, opens with the sort of interview that only Herzog or Errol Morris ever seem to get, hitting upon the minutiae of human experience so rarely captured on film. In the film’s prologue, a priest relates his experience as an attendant of the execution of inmates on Texas’ death row. Egged on by Herzog behind the camera, the interview takes a curious, but heartfelt, turn as the priest discusses his appreciation of life itself through an anecdote about an encounter with a squirrel on the golf course. Although Into the Abyss may not stand among Herzog’s most profound or successful documentaries, revelatory moments like this elevate the film above the typical documentary experience.
In Into the Abyss, Herzog strives to reveal the absurdities of the death penalty through incredibly simple methods. To begin with, the film constantly stresses the value of life. Furthermore, he explores the inadequacy of the system by focusing on a single crime— a triple murder for which one Micheal Perry awaits execution, while his accomplice faces a forty-year sentence without parole. The story of the triple murder related in Into the Abyss bears a shocking resemblance to that of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, so much so that the man awaiting execution for the crimes bears the name Perry. Herzog speaks with everyone involved in and affected by the crime until simple details like who actually committed the murders become impossible to say with any certainty.
These methods prove incredibly effective in relating the filmmaker’s message, but I ultimately found Into the Abyss to possess little of the stirring profundity that characterizes such recent Herzog docs as Encounters at the End of the World (2007) or Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011)— not to mention a half dozen of the director’s other documentary efforts. Still, Herzog paints an ominous picture of Texas as a land in which its inhabitants live under constant threat of death, if not at the hands of their fellow Texans for one trivial reason or another, then by the state itself, which happily doles out death sentences to anyone suspected of a crime. To the detriment of the film’s message, however, I feel that Herzog focuses too heavily on the crime and those persons surrounding the events of the murders rather than the death penalty itself. This results in a marginally-successful documentary at best, one that, while inferior to many of Herzog’s other docs, still stands out as an interesting and engaging piece on one of America’s most contentious issues.
Special features on the home video release of Into the Abyss are sadly limited to the film’s theatrical trailer.
Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.
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