Into the Abyss, the latest work from acclaimed documentarian Werner Herzog, lives up to its weighty title. The captivating film takes us into the endless depths of the human soul as it explores life, death and everything between.
The story centers on two young convicts, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, who were found guilty of a triple homicide in a small Texas town. Perry sits on death row, eight days away from his execution, while his accomplice, Burkett, faces a life sentence.
Thus begins a documentary on capital punishment, but like all Herzog’s work, the film looks far beyond a single idea and, despite a transparent agenda, never sermonizes. Herzog merely puts his belief that capital punishment is wrong to the test, examining it from several angles.
In typical Herzog fashion, he explores his subject through conversations between the filmmaker, whom we of course never see, and a plethora of related interviewees. Because it avoids didactic narration and biased statistics, this approach feels honest and reliable and, thus, humanistic.
But the humanity really comes from Herzog, who has an uncanny gift for interviews. His distinct voice carries with it a gentleness and genuine curiosity that give him leverage with his subjects. It helps that Herzog knows all the right buttons to push and when to push them, allowing him to get to the core of matters.
His abilities here appear most vividly in three specific interviews, none of which actually feature the two convicts themselves. (Their time time on camera is, nonetheless, intriguing.) The first involves the death row prison chaplain; the second, Burkett’s father, who is also locked up; and finally, a woman related to two of the victims.
In the opening sequence, set in front of a cemetery full of executed criminals, the chaplain elaborates on the difficulty of his time with each convict. When Herzog asks, “Why does God allow the death penalty?” he receives no answer. The question comes across not as a stab at religion but as an example of Herzog’s sincerity and insistence on looking closer.
His question also leads to one of the more meaningful sequences in the film: Talking about his personal life playing golf, the chaplain shares his experiences with creation and life, particularly the animals he sees on the golf course. In tears, he states, “All life is precious.”
Whereas the scene with the chaplain invokes the moral and spiritual implications of capital punishment and death, the interview with Burkett’s father digs into the social dynamics. As the man so candidly pours himself out on camera, the scene further confirms the genius of Herzog.
Placing the blame on himself, Burkett’s father can’t help but speculate as to whether the circumstances would exist if he had been there for his son and not on drugs and in and out of prison. This thought breaks him down, creating a heavy layer of emotion. It’s sad, personal and, alas, true. Even more, the scene presents a lucid subtext about generational crime and the social realities of fatherless youth.
Here and throughout the film, Herzog appears to move away from his principal focus on the wrongness of capital punishment—proving further his concern with human experience as a whole. In doing this, however, he actually helps his case as he gives death row convicts a face and a story, shining light on the complexities of crime and the people involved with it.
Herzog then brings his argument—if you can call it that—full circle in an interview with someone on the other side of the story: the daughter/sister of two of the victims. This woman, interviewed after Perry’s execution, describes watching it and the satisfaction it gave her.
In her attempt to make a case for capital punishment, though, she ends up doing just the opposite. Even while she claims the act brought about justice and relief, her words and demeanor ultimately suggest an empty soul that still seeks healing and contentment. She isn’t at peace.
Herzog, with his humanistic instincts, recognizes the contradiction and presses her further. He asks if a life sentence would accomplish the same goal. In this moment of clarity, he goes on to say that even Jesus Christ rejected this sort of Old Testament, eye-for-an-eye principle, taking the Law further through a message of mercy, grace and forgiveness.
Likely aimed at the religious conservatives who embrace capital punishment, Herzog’s point proves unsettling. It could make even the staunchest conservatives reconsider their convictions on the law.
Into the Abyss is not perfect. The film lacks a sense of scope—both in regard to Texas as a state and the larger culture from which these people and their acts have sprung—and it’s a bit scattered at times. Nonetheless, the film may be one of the most convincing documentaries on capital punishment, yet. It’s certainly among the most meditative and insightful.