If any one theme connects the recent documentaries of Werner Herzog, it’s that the director, narrator and inevitable participant in his films boldly goes where few have gone before – whether it’s engaging with the few human inhabitants of the North Pole (Encounters at the End of the World), flying above rarely seen rainforests in a helium-fueled contraption (The White Diamond) or filming the primitive art of France’s Chauvet Cave, a place few humans outside of the sciences have seen, in three dazzling dimensions (Cave of Forgotten Dreams).
With a prestigious cinematic career spanning almost 50 years and 62 titles, Herzog has been granted access to many a no-man’s-land, completing his best reportage in far-flung contours of space, be they physical or psychic nooks. His latest release, Into the Abyss, explores a little of both.
A solemn meditation on capital punishment in modern America, its journalistic centerpiece is an interview with convicted killer Michael Perry just eight days before his execution in the spring of 2010 – yet another rare Herzog coup. But the entire film is taxing on deep emotional and mental levels.
The crime took place in Conroe, Texas, in 2001, when Perry and Jason Burkett slaughtered a mother, a her son and her son’s best friend in a posh, gated community, all in the name of stealing a car. The meat of the film is the director’s interviews with friends and relatives of both the criminals and victims.
The most heartbreaking footage comes courtesy of the sister of the murdered teenager Adam Stotler, who runs through the laundry list of family members lost to murder, suicide and natural causes over a year’s time – and who speaks about disconnecting her phone service because she couldn’t handle another call informing her of a dead relative.
But the families of the killers earn your sympathies, too. Burkett’s father is a career criminal serving his latest 40-year sentence, and he all but collapses into a puddle of shame as he expresses his regret over the choices he has made and how they affected James’ upbringing. In fact, just about everybody who fills Herzog’s frame has a history of violence and/or drug abuse; one man remained illiterate until he learned to read and write in prison, which we learn through one of the film’s many conversational sidetracks (one of Herzog’s strengths as an interviewer has always been that he asks the peculiar questions of an outsider, and his films usually contain diversions as compelling as their main subjects).
Into the Abyss is as much a tragic diagnosis of an entire city and its neighboring towns – such as Cut and Shoot, whose very name portends grisliness – as it is the crimes of Perry and Burkett, or the death penalty in general.
I was most struck by Herzog’s interview with a former state executioner whose sober description of the protocols of his job segues into a recollection about the emotional upheaval he experienced around Execution No. 120, which made him abandon his post, retirement plan included. The sequence is at first detached, then personal, and it ultimately reflects the kind of “Turn the other cheek” New Testament humanism Herzog himself endorses.
That said, Herzog is too gentle an interrogator to stir up much in the way of controversy, and critics and defenders of the death penalty will each find their champions in the tragic souls who speak with disarming candor in front of his camera. Into the Abyss will probably change no one’s ideological stance on the issue; Herzog makes clear his opposition to state-sanctioned murder without preaching on behalf of his viewpoint, and that alone separates his movie from the temptation of propaganda that has swallowed too many social-problem films.
Instead of telling viewers what to think, he achieves the opposite, lingering on his subjects for beat after beat after they’re done speaking, encouraging introspection. Through Herzog’s own voice, Into the Abyss has the soothing, deliberate, Teutonic demeanor of a grown-up attempting, through extended shots, to gaze into the souls of his troubled cast – whether or not every member has one.
INTO THE ABYSS. Director: Werner Herzog; Rating: PG-13; Distributor: Sundance Selects; Opens: Friday at Regal Shadowood in Boca Raton, Regal Delray Beach and Living Room Theaters at FAU.