- User Rating: Excellent
Bang For The Buck
Pros:Non-sensational, empathetic, contemplative approach.
Cons:Too few to mention.
The Bottom Line: No Spoiler review of Werner Herzog's 2011 Documentary is a memorable, quietly powerful gem focusing on the human spirit.
Into the Abyss is a 2011 documentary by Werner Herzog (Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Grizzly Man) explores a triple homicide case that took place in Conroe Texas ten years ago and the effects it has had on the victims’ family and on those accused of the crimes. The question of the death penalty is also explored, but not in the ways you might think. This is not sensationalistic film and it doesn’t argue politics either.
Herzog is interested in achieving a gaze into the abyss of the human soul and conducts a series of personal conversations with people who for the most part are directly related to the case.
We begin with an interview of Richard Lopez, the chaplain at Huntsville, the Texas state penitentiary where death row prisoners are incarcerated. He is photographed in the cemetery where un-claimed bodies and many state executed prisoners are buried. Stone crosses with numbers and death dates but no names mark the graves. The chaplain has been with many death-row prisoners. Herzog eventually gets him to relate a story about stopping his golf cart just in time to avoid hitting some squirrels. It’s a touching moment because of how it relates to his faith and his work with giving last rites to prisoners.
Like many moments in this quiet, contemplative documentary it touches upon the compassion of the human spirit.
If you are familiar with Herzog’s past work, you will notice that Herzog does not use his usual voice-over narration where he offers factoids, discusses philosophy, history or relates the experiences of making the documentary to his personal life for this film. Herzog doesn’t make asides and only a few times makes a brief personal comment when it is part of a question he is asking. He stays behind the camera, asking his questions in his recognizable heavily accented voice.
There are many moments where no one is talking and we are given breathing time to think about what someone has just said, or as we watch someone’s face for several seconds AFTER they have said something. In all cases, we glimpse sincerity in the faces, the eyes of his subjects. Perhaps we glimpse more than that, but that is in the eye of the beholder.
The story of the crime begins with an interview of the now 28 year Michael Perry who looks no older than 17. The filmed interview took place eight days before he was scheduled to be lethally injected for taking part in a triple homicide. Perry says he’s a Christian and his fate is in God’s hand. He doesn’t admit guilt or display remorse. He is fighting clinical depression, yet has some hope he will not be put to death in eight days.
Herzog, tells him that it is not important if he (Herzog) likes or doesn’t like him as a person. He doesn’t believe in the death penalty and wants Michael to know this. Michael explains he has not accepted that he will be put to death in eight days. He says he is not entirely innocent, but is also not entirely guilty of the crime he was found guilty for.
Now you might wonder if this documentary or perhaps Herzog intends to uncover additional evidence about the case or perhaps create a legal case to stop Perry from being executed.
The question lingers for a while as we learn about the crime that took place over 10 years earlier. Herzog interviews Damon Perry of the Montgomery Sheriff’s Department who was one of the police officers involved in the investigation. We see Police Crime Scene Video (a video of the processed crime scene including places where blood and blood splatter are seen and we also see that in the kitchen, the victim was apparently in the process of making cookies when she was murdered.). A title tells us that the video was made two days after murder took place—the victim’s body was discovered in a nearby lake—and all the lights and television was still on…it represents exactly how the police found the scene when they arrived. Perry is photographed in present day outside the house where the crime took place and then at some other locations later on.
We slowly learn the details of the case. Two teenaged boys (Michael Perry –then 18 and Jason Burkett-then 17) who had been drinking and doing drugs broke into a large house in an exclusive gated community with the idea of stealing a Red Camaro that was in the garage. They wound up killing a middle aged woman and putting her body into the trunk of the Camaro. The boys were acquaintances with the woman’s son. When they couldn’t open the security gate to get back in to the gated community (to steal the car), a phone call was made and eventually the son and one of his friends came to assist. These two young men were also brutally murdered.
Three days later, a chaotic shoot-out occurred at a truck-stop and arrests were made.
Interviews with family members, the accused perpetrators, and a state executioner give us several perspectives. How have family members dealt with the tragedy of this crime? What do Perry and Burkett have to say about it—ten years later? Everyone is frank and direct in responding to Herzog’s sometimes difficult but delicately asked inquiries. Herzog reveals through his interviews the impact the crime has made on many lives. Nothing is sensationalized and for the most part Herzog is warm and compassionate so we never feel like anyone is being dissected on a petri dish for our entertainment.
Herzog is not interested in sensationalizing the story and he doesn’t linger on any gory details. We see some blood splatter and glimpse some bodies, but we don’t SEE anything disturbing and there are no autopsy or morgue type photos.
Hearing about the crime (NOT in lingering details, however) is a bit disturbing of course, and our empathy for family members and what they have been through turns into a growing respect for their ability to be resilient and strong despite devastating experiences. There have been consequences and people we interview have had to deal with as much as most people can possibly bear—but we also see, hear and understand how important it is for them to continue living normal, healthy lives.
Perhaps most disturbing is when we spend a little time with Perry and Burkett and with Burkett’s biological father and a Nebraskan woman who has become Burkett’s wife. Burkett does not get conjugal visits but. .. well there is a somewhat unexpected story that is told that I won’t spoil for those who have not seen the movie.
Herzog also does not make a particularly strong argument against the Death Penalty, but let’s several people he interviews briefly talk about it. The documentary asks the viewer to think about it—but no one makes a strong argument either way about it during the film.
Herzog is curious mostly about the human spirit and how it overcomes challenges. In this case the challenges are not physical, but emotional and perhaps spiritual. In his questions, Herzog is curious, direct but always empathetic towards his subjects.
Some will find Into the Abyss very slow moving and since it lacks any sensationalism, perhaps even dull and boring. I’d like to believe most will be touched by several of the people we meet here and appreciate Herzog’s approach to telling the story and revealing the people that are part of it.
I appreciate how the film invites a discussion about several issue that are raised—particularly the death penalty. Herzog clearly states that he doesn’t believe in the death penalty. However, the way he positions the argument in the context of the film is not in political terms, but in human and faith-based ones. It is a balanced movie. Herzog lets a family member state: “Some people don’t deserve to live.” It is said in such a way in context that everyone in the audience will understand the perspective. The statement is not challenged or argued. We don’t have to agree with it OR disagree with it OR even feel a reason to debate it. It’s clear and understood. Herzog could have easily edited the statement out of the movie—but he doesn’t. He isn’t expecting everyone to believe the same things he does.
What Herzog IS interested in, is exploring--- Exploring people who either push themselves physically and mentally or in exploring how adversity and tragedy affects people emotionally and spiritually. He’s done it in a diverse number of fiction movies and for the last several ways in several excellent documentaries.
I watched Into the ABYSS as a Netflix streaming download. I noticed the current DVD available for sale does not include any film-related extras or director’s commentary.
Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss is a quietly powerful, very memorable documentary exploring how a ten year old triple homicide in Texas has affected several family members and friends of both the victims and perpetrators of the crime. It is quite different in style and tone from Herzog’s last few documentaries. Highly recommended.
©2012 Christopher J. Jarmick All Rights Reserved
Read all 2 Reviews
Write a Review
Movie Mood: Serious Movie