As most police officers, doctors, or therapists will tell you, there are virtually no sentiments you can offer the recently bereaved without succumbing to useless and even insulting platitude. There’s simply nothing that can be said, and the acknowledgment of language’s inability to capture the shock of loss is perhaps the only strange reassurance that can be offered, as that admission at least treats the bereaved with a bit of respect. And that’s a hell of a tightrope to walk tonally with a person who’s recently lost someone, particularly if the someone in question is a child who’s dead because of the deliberate and purposeful actions of another human being.
And filmmaker Werner Herzog walks just that tightrope time and time again in the remarkable Into the Abyss, which legitimately earns the multiple comparisons to In Cold Blood that it garnered upon release last year. This film is a similarly irresolvable exploration of lives warped by considerable loss, of desires strangely stirred, of lives trapped in unending cycles of abuse and mental and physical sickness that occasionally give way to crimes as monstrous as those that Herzog has set about documenting here. Perhaps the most haunting implication that Herzog makes in Into the Abyss is that these kinds of crimes are almost a ritual, an inevitable cultural spontaneous combustion. Herzog has taken on some dark subjects before in his career, but he’s never gotten this close to the belly of the beast, and he’s never worked with the cleanness and discipline he does here.
There’s always been a certain carny exploitative hambone element to even Herzog’s most humane films: The director, usually a star or at least the narrator of his nonfiction films, usually comes on a little strong in his empathy (think of the moment in Grizzly Man where he refuses to share with us a recording of Timothy Treadwell’s mauling, a tasteful decision that’s also a ploy that alloys Herzog to have his cake and eat it too: to score points for his humanism while still achieving the dread that he would’ve attained had he played the recording). There are those sorts of moments in Into the Abyss as well, but they serve a subtler purpose. Herzog never treats the various victims or convicted killers with the choked seriousness that one would expect of an interviewer exploring a triple homicide—and his surprising matter-of-factness plays as respect. This approach is Herzog’s canny way of getting his subjects to open up while also quietly asserting his rejection of capital punishment. Everyone in this film is undeniably human.
Herzog, for example, tells Michael Perry, a 28-year-old small-town Texan who would be executed a few days after interviewing with the director for his involvement in the murders of a middle-aged woman and two teens when he was 17, that he respects him as a human, but that he doesn’t like him very much. That’s an obvious bit of theater that will be familiar to fans of Herzog’s films, but it also strangely opens Perry up: He respects the aging German, clearly an alien in the white God-fearing town of Conroe, Texas, as a straight talker. Perry, who looks eerily like Jim Carrey’s character in Dumb and Dumber, immediately strikes us as a sociopath, a man whose sense of entitlement far outweighs any grasp of empathy or compassion. Perry looks Herzog’s camera straight-on and tells us he thinks there’s hope of an appeal and that God’s on his side, sentiments that, coming from a man who was caught very nearly red-handed, seems like a perverse, unspeakable joke.
Jason Burkett, Perry’s partner in the crimes who was tried separately and got off comparatively light with life imprisonment, is more chilling for his suggestions of conventional humanity. While Perry plays into our pop-cultural ideas of a delusional psycho, Burkett is a good-looking, intelligent man raised in a dysfunctional family that would’ve seemed to ensure his life as a criminal—and thus potentially inspire the kind of sympathy that’s criticized by some as “liberal” at the expense of common sense. Burkett, who insists on his innocence and blames Perry as Perry respectively blames Burkett, has since married an attractive woman who’d been campaigning for his release. Burkett’s aim is to one day meet the child that he will soon have from an artificial insemination of his sperm that was snuck out of the prison.
The fear of this kind of film, made by a man very clearly against the death penalty, is that it will shortchange Perry and Burkett’s atrocities for the sake of a theoretically admirable humanist point. But Herzog, one of cinema’s major artists, can’t settle for something that cozy, and he astutely recognizes that kind of simplification as representative of an appalling knee-jerk insensitivity. In the harrowing first third of the film, Herzog establishes, with jolting clarity, the motive and execution of Perry and Burkett’s crimes, which essentially boil down to the theft of a Camaro.
The absurd puniness of Perry and Burkett’s motivation for ultimately killing three people haunts the rest of the movie, particularly when Sandra Stotler’s daughter testifies about the murder of her mother and brother (the third victim was her brother’s friend), admitting that watching Perry’s execution gave her some needed release and clarity. But then Herzog soon cuts to interviews with a death-row chaplain so disturbed by the conflicting, hypocritical politeness of the death-row rituals that he had to retire early despite the loss of pension.
Herzog never allows you to get your bearings, and that might be the only way to make a film about the death penalty that has any kind of lasting value. Herzog shortchanges nothing (many filmmakers trying to make Herzog’s point might’ve cheated, for example, by omitting Stotler’s daughter’s admission that the execution gave her a measure of peace) and the ultimate meaning that arises is that there isn’t meaning, which establishes capital punishment as an egotistical act of eye-for-eye containment that ultimately serves no purpose. It’s clear the lives affected by the Perry-Burkett murders are irrevocably altered—tormented by fear, anger, survivor’s guilt, despair, and who knows what else, and that the infliction of capital punishment only adds another link to a chain of carnage and destruction.
A confession: As a relatively devoted card-carrying liberal, I can’t entirely get behind the dissolution of the death penalty (there are people that I’m capable of calling monsters, and one of them is Charles Manson, whose name is admittedly stated often for these sorts of pro-death penalty purposes) and therein lies Herzog’s courage and ultimate humanity. Going into the film, you may assume that the titular abyss is the death that Perry has now faced and you’d be only partially right. The larger abyss is that realm of bottomless anger and despair that anyone still living touched closely by death must face. But the way out of that abyss, the way into some kind of containment and sense of control isn’t death, but through the courage to continually value life at all costs and seemingly cruel contradictions.
Apart from the occasional grasp at the poetic (such as a shot of a flock of birds in the sky), Werner Herzog favors a conventional point-and-shot documentary aesthetic that allows the story to largely speak for itself. The image is clean and well-rendered with no detectable transfer issues, and the same can be side of the sound mix. But one doesn't see this film for major audio-visual fireworks.
Just the theatrical trailer, which is probably just as well, as Into the Abyss rather clearly speaks for itself.
The steadfastly human Into the Abyss is one of the most haunting movies concerning the unending reverberations in the wake of a small-town atrocity ever made.