Werner Herzog’s new documentary “Into the Abyss” explores the American institution of capital punishment by following the story of one death row inmate, Michael Perry.
As eerie flutes and strings float in the background, Werner Herzog is driving through a foreign land: Texas. Herzog has long been known for his work in exotic locales, which includes the Antarctica-centered documentary “Encounters at the End of the World” and the South American epics “Aguirre: The Wrath of God” and “Fitzcarraldo.” With “Into the Abyss,” he now moves through the brush-lined roads of the Lone Star state and its many drawling denizens in order to understand better the movers and actors surrounding American capital punishment. While Herzog makes it clear in the film’s first few minutes that he does not support the death penalty, “Into the Abyss” is not a political film so much as a story with understated political implications. With the steady and practiced hand of an expert documentary filmmaker, Herzog straps the issue to the gurney and injects the stories of murderer, victim, family, executor, law, and lover to create a nuanced picture of cyclical senselessness in capital punishment.
“Into the Abyss” tells the story of the real-life crime and punishment of Michael Perry, who was executed in July 2010 for a triple homicide, and Jason Burkett, his accomplice who is now serving a 30-year sentence. The title could well refer to Perry’s eyes, bottomless and gleaming at the thought of joining his father in heaven. He carries himself like a boy, smiling and enthusiastic. He is unfailingly polite, even when Herzog abruptly declares, “I don’t have to like you, but you are a human being.” After introducing us to the murderer of the piece, Herzog then leaves Perry to explore the murders themselves with footage drawn from improbably poignant crime scene videos: cookie dough remains balled on aluminum pans, a teddy bear lies face-down on a garage floor, and blood is spattered all over the ceiling and floor. Perry and Burkett killed a mother, son, and friend for the senseless purpose of stealing a red Camaro. Herzog makes no argument that Perry or Burkett are innocent, as the DNA and crime scene evidence incontrovertibly place them at each grisly locale.
Yet even though he is cataloging such an undeniably gruesome and cruel crime, Herzog frames his investigation like any ordinary day in Perry’s hometown, Conroe. He interviews an acquaintance of the two killers, a calloused young contractor who learned to read in prison. With folded arms—one tattooed with his girlfriend’s name, Bailey—the man speaks about the fights and murder attempts of the town with the casual air of someone discussing a mild annoyance. He relates how after he himself was once stabbed in the chest with a foot-long screwdriver, he still went to work because he couldn’t afford to stay home.
Herzog portrays this violent, gun-slinging Texas as an intergenerational legacy of fathers and sons. Burkett’s father, who pleaded for his son not to be executed, is serving a 30-year sentence in a prison across the street. Herzog ends the film on an uncomfortably ominous note with an interview with Burkett’s wife, who is carrying his child through artificial insemination, as he was imprisoned before they could consummate their marriage. Her off-putting giggles and nervous phone-checking during the interview creates the sickening impression that history is soon to repeat itself as another child is carelessly brought into a cycle of neglect and violence.
The most poignant part of the movie is its series of closing interviews. A former execution officer breathes heavily as he describes the last meal of death row inmates, and what it was like strapping them to the gurney. He talks about the execution of a woman that led him to quit his profession and leave behind a pension in favor of adherence to the call of conscience. In the end, only the victim’s family member, bereaved for a decade, says that she was glad she saw the execution, but even she seems unsure that more suffering was necessary despite the closure it brought her.
The only dissonant aspect of “Into the Abyss” is the trademark Herzogian humor that seems too off-color for the heavy subject matter. While his musings on the potential insanity of penguins works in “Encounters,” Herzog’s teasing here of Burkett’s wife about how exactly she was impregnated just comes off as highly inappropriate. Nonetheless, Herzog’s probing and provocative questions about love and God in relation to execution elicit profound responses from his subjects that make up for his occasional excesses.
“Into the Abyss” may not be a documentary with a mantra, but Herzog is once more successful in capturing the elusive “ecstatic truth” he worships. The film’s interviews are truly raw and the story is complicated yet effortlessly explained. The end result is a documentary that presents a picture of a world where capital punishment seems to have no willing contributors and merely renews itself endogenously. It is another cinematic accomplishment for the celebrated filmmaker.
—Staff writer Christine A. Hurd can be reached at email@example.com.