Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5. Germany/Canada, 2011. Creative Differences Productions, Skellig Rock, Spring Films, Werner Herzog Filmproduktion, Investigation Discovery, More4, Revolver Entertainment. Screenplay by Werner Herzog. Cinematography by Peter Zeitlinger. Produced by Erik Nelson. Music by Mark De Gli Antoni. Film Editing by Joe Bini. Toronto International Film Festival 2011.
Werner Herzog has had great success navigating between the worlds of fiction and documentary, almost always fixing his gaze on a singular personality whose nature puts them at odds with their society. Into The Abyss is meant to be an exploration of the characters he observes on death row in Texas, but he isn’t as concentrated as in previous films like Grizzly Man and it’s harder to figure out where he’s trying to go with all his material, a rare lack of focus for this great director. At the centre of the exploration are Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, two men in prison for the murder of a woman and two teenaged boys whom they killed while trying to steal a car. Perry is on death row (scheduled to die about a week after his interview) while Burkett has life in prison, and Herzog interviews them, their family members and the families of the victims in an effort to explore the morality of capital punishment. He also includes an interview with a former death row guard who oversaw hundreds of executions before deciding that capital punishment was wrong and that he could no longer continue (even at the cost of his pension). Herzog has stated to the press that his purpose was to make a statement about what he saw as the immorality of state-legislated killing, but that message does not come across while watching this film; the footage is mesmerizing and he has not lost his knack for what makes a good interview subject (somebody please make a movie about Burkett’s wife), but there are no definitive statements by either victim or killer to say that we are being pushed in a particular direction. Unlike Dead Man Walking, which brilliantly challenges us in a myriad of ways, Herzog isn’t confidently presenting all sides and admitting that there are no easy answers; he actually seems to be looking for one and unable to find it. He also ignores some pretty interesting avenues of exploration that could have been further fleshed out: the victims of the murder, for example, were obviously wealthy (they lived in a gated community) in a town where there was no shortage of underprivileged people, and yet the class tension from which this crime was possibly born is never addressed (nor the fact that one of the victims, who was the dead woman’s son, obviously hung out with people not as wealthy as him). Still, no one can blame Herzog for feeling overwhelmed by the wealth of material he records here, with individual after individual detailing a life full of tragedy and violence (regardless of their economic situation), and anyone would be at their wit’s end trying to figure out where emphasis should go.