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Directed by: Werner Herzog

Two boys want to steal a red Camaro so they kill three people to do so and in just a few days they’re both caught. Jason Burkett will serve a life sentence, Michael Perry will be executed. These are the subjects of Werner Herzog’s documentary Into the Abyss in which he considers the death penalty and interviews the many people  affected by such a penal construct.

Herzog isn’t as present in Into the Abyss as he has been in many of his other documentaries. I mean, he’s present in its every movement, its every penetrating thought and gesture, and his voice can be heard probing his subjects with deceptively mundane questions; Herzog is always the ring master of his documentaries, talking onscreen, allowing room for bizarre (often animal-themed) visual diversions and providing deeply perceptive, interpretive narration but for Into the Abyss he allows his footage to do the talking and inserts himself only in the form of the chapter titles such as “Time and Emptiness.” His use of police crime scene footage is so keenly edited, it recalls his use of found footage in The Wild Blue Yonder or Grizzly Man. For the most part, the documentary is composed of interview footage, featuring not just Perry and Burkett but friends and family members of the victims, police officers, a prison chaplain and the one-time captain of the Texas death house.

In his blunt and disarming way, Herzog is able to coax incredible sadness from these people, each severely damaged by the circumstances. Perry denies everything to his death, but even so he comes across as so amoral and manipulative that it feels fairly certain that he was the driving force behind the terrible crime and that he is most likely a sociopath. The family members of the victims are shattered people, who are clearly trying so hard to hold themselves together but are barely managing. Burkett’s father, himself serving his fourth or fifth prison sentence (the current one a 40 year sentence of which he does not expect to see the end) is the most astonishingly sad man, listing his failures as a father and lamenting the Thanksgiving he spent in prison with both his inmate sons.  The man who worked for so many years in the Texas Death House is a man so full of sadness that even his efforts for happiness don’t sit right.

Into the Abyss is a hard film to read; Herzog treats capital punishment as the complicated issue it is by providing a forum for its many sides. Accordingly, Herzog does not necessarily use this film to denounce the death penalty, as he might be expected to do, and instead he presents not just a foolish crime and a pointless punishment, but observes instead complex emotional ripples of murder and state execution. Herzog briefly raises questions of motivation, of death, of cruelty and of course the abyss of time and existence, but generally this is not as philosophically provoking as Herzog’s films tend to be. That is not to say this is a sub par documentary from the great director, but rather it is a film in which Herzog’s concerns are uncharacteristically direct. Capital punishment, for all its cultural and philosophical implications, is still being implemented and people are being killed, something I believe Herzog is keenly aware will not be salved by narrational dalliances.