Into the Abyss Directed by: Werner Herzog Running Time: 1 hr 50 mins Rating: R Release Date: November 11, 2011 (Chicago)
PLOT: In this documentary, director Werner Herzog goes to Conroe, Texas, to interview two inmates, one of which is on death row. Herzog learns in great detail about the murderous events that have led them to such a place, while interviewing family members about their loss.
WHO'S IT FOR? As this Abyss belongs to the interpretation of Herzog, one shouldn't immediately expect an unbiased discussion of the death penalty. Regardless of which side of the debate you are on, Herzog's interest in the subject will keep you on board with his film.
With his previous documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams coming out only this past summer, director/documentarian Werner Herzog returns to theaters with another foray into a land of "forgotten dreams," yet this one is less obscure and more overly profound than Cave's history lesson (in a useful 3D, nonetheless). He takes us to Conroe, Texas, where a triple homicide is going to lead to another "just" killing by the state.
Before diving into a heavy discussion of the death penalty, an issue that has inspired this film, Herzog gives us a complete recount of the events that have put inmates Mike Perry on death row, and Jason Burkett in jail. The picture is painted by both police officers, and the inmates themselves.
A large force that drives this story is Herzog himself, who is never on camera, but always (or so it feels), behind it. While this movie certainly isn't the lone work of Herzog exploring a Texas town with a personal camera, it has the feel more of a visual essay than a documentary, one that comes directly from Herzog to the audience.
Engaging the many unique characters of Conroe, who range from family members affected by the tragedy to police officers to general friends of the two criminals, Herzog displays a classic curiosity about the Abyss that he has become so fascinated with. He doesn't hold back in asking the frank questions that might come across our minds. In a way that's even kind of cute, with his accent and outsider's perspective, he allows his subjects to feel even more natural to us with his seemingly left-field questions. These side inquiries do not make the film feel overlong, or distracting. It's Herzog leading his audience towards one fascinating big picture.
For example, Herzog spends about five minutes letting someone who knew Burkett and Perry talk about his own life, and his own experience with an assault that involved a screwdriver. When the man casually mentions that he learned to read during a later and darker part in his life, Herzog simply asks him, "How does it feel now being able to read?" This is, of course, after Herzog has inquired to the man about his tattoos.
With Herzog being such a fascinating eye of which to look into this story, the whole film becomes even more rewarding (despite its Melancholia-like crushing sadness) with the interviews that the director conducts with people like Perry, Burkett, and Burkett's father. Whether the subjects are speaking in some sort of cliche, or sounding completely off-base (Perry is always a fascinating question mark in this film), Herzog is giving them a rare opportunity to simply speak. For Perry, Herzog is offering him a large podium to say his peace (Perry is dead now).
Possibly the most profound of all interviews happens when Herzog talks to an executioner, a man who has made over one hundred deaths on the clock. Amongst sharing enough fodder to get Herzog (and us, even) to be discouraged by the death penalty, the man also offers this bit of advice: "Live your dash." (The "dash" in question is the dash that will be on our gravestone.)
Take what you want from these jail visits, which have Herzog filming each of them through jail screens - sympathy, no sympathy, disgust, outrage - but you will be shaken by this tragedy, and by Herzog's excavation of its universal darkness.
FINAL SCORE: 7/10