As in his last nonfiction work, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog spends time in the initial sequences of Into the Abyss looking at artifacts of human endeavor. But here, seen in a grainy police tape and on a tour led by a homicide lieutenant, they're not the relics of our ancestors' first artistic strivings, but the degraded leavings of a particularly pointless and brutal triple murder in the Houston suburb of Conroe, Texas. Wisely lacking the filmmaker's distinctive, often grandiloquent narration of his past feature-length essays (his off-camera presence is that of a probing, counterintuitive detective as he interviews the case's perpetrators and living casualties), this project may seem to hew more closely to "classic" documentary aesthetics, but it's still thoroughly shaped by Herzog's humanist passion and attention to emotional details. Conspicuously using the subtitle "A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life," Herzog is unconcerned with heaping a layer of true-crime-doc grit onto the awful, chaotic rupture of the community he's investigating, focusing on his subjects' shame, grief, and introspection, in what may be his best film since the equally compelling but substantially more comforting The White Diamond.
Underlying the occasionally harrowing, consistently mournful tone is a philosophy that, more than being explicitly anti-capital punishment (as the filmmaker tells death row prisoner Michael Perry, he opposes the convicted killer's imminent execution but "I don't have to like you"), puts both family ties and the social contract at the center of people's self-worth. Herzog is fascinated by the immense burdens produced by the failures of these connections, both long aborning (incarcerated parents, chronic illness) and sudden as the killing of three people over the theft of two cars. Perry, the apparent trigger man, and his accomplice Jason Burkett shot a middle-aged woman inside her home in a gated community, and elsewhere her teen son and his friend, for joyrides; the banality of the motive is reinforced by footage of Sandra Stotler's untended cookie dough in the pan, TV blaring in the living room, and her bloodstains hastily covered by a throw rug. Perry, a juvenile-looking 28-year-old sitting behind a glass partition days before his execution, glibly answers Herzog's questions with a rictus grin and nonchalance about his fate ("We'll see what happens, huh?"), while the more somber Burkett owes the relative mercy of his long-term imprisonment to his father, a recidivist serving a 40-year sentence who begged in court for his son's life.
The depth of loss is articulated on both sides of the tragedy. Lisa Stotler-Balloun, sister and daughter to two of the victims, presents a Sunday-best, dignified guise to the camera that swiftly crumbles in her recollections of the murders and how they completed the decimation of her family in the span of six years. (The interviews risk awkward details, such as Lisa's recitation of a necrology that includes the family dog, that would've been ironed out of a more conventionally cautious treatment of these sensational circumstances.) Another victim's brother, painted as the black sheep of the clan for his brushes with the law, sobs that he introduced his sibling to his killers, with a playground set in the middle distance behind him discreetly adding poignancy to his anguish. And Herzog bookends the film with two prison professionals, a chaplain who attends the condemned in their last minutes and a death-house captain who unstraps their corpses from the gurney following lethal injection, bearing the weight of what they've seen and heard. (The clergyman seems soul-wounded by his witness, but continues to provide comfort as his mission; the official quit and abandoned his support of lethal justice after the 1998 execution of Karla Faye Tucker, the first woman put to death in Texas in the 20th century.)
Into the Abyss contextualizes the hardscrabble, brutish criminality of Perry and Burkett with segments like an interview with a young, chaw-spitting mechanic in their circle, who once shook off a stabbing with a screwdriver so he could get to work on time. (Newly literate, he's congratulated by Herzog, who upon asking if the garage worker writes often, is told, "Not so much writing. Lotta sanding.") The East Texas hinterlands seem a dangerously fertile place for machismo and deprivation to stoke the worst instincts of post-adolescent males, as a barmaid who recalls riding in the killers' stolen cars indicates with her quaking testimony: "All the terrible things…I just put them back." Attuned to human longings in these most unusual circumstances, Herzog's empathy faces its biggest challenge when he presents us with the member of Burkett's legal team who is now his loving, pregnant wife, demurring that she's any kind of "death-row groupie" before brandishing an image of the child she's carrying. With her husband ineligible for parole until 2041, the film does little to discourage us from suspecting this might be one of the child's biggest breaks, as we've seen Burkett's dad, almost certain to die behind bars, pushed to admit that when cuffed to his son on a prison bus, he felt inescapably like "a total failure." Notwithstanding the odd surreal detail, like an impounded murder car with a tree growing through its floor or a killer reminiscing about seeing leaping monkeys on an Outward Bound trip, Into the Abyss laments the fallout from cold-blooded carnage with a keen, meditative strength.