By William Wolf


Werner Herzog’s remarkable documentary “Into the Abyss” is a deeply involving portrait of the underbelly of a section of America, in this case Texas. While Herzog quietly but brilliantly explores an ugly crime of murder and its resulting death sentence for one of the convicted and a life sentence for another, it is the combination of his interviews that illuminate essential portraits. The film also reveals the horror of capital punishment and its effect on those involved, the condemned as well as those leading the condemned to the legal slaughter. It is clear that Herzog is against capital punishment, but he lets participants do the talking, and Herzog, who does the interviewing from off-camera knows the right follow-up questions that will result in the subjects opening up.

At the core of the story is the 2001 murder of a Conroe, Texas, woman by perpetrators in the hope of getting a car parked in her garage, and then the subsequent murder of her son and his friend. Arrested and convicted of the terrible crime were Michael Perry, sentenced to death, and Jason Burkett, given life.

A centerpiece interview is with Perry eight days before his execution. He comes across as just a kid who went wrong and smiles a lot as he tries to get a handle on and deal with all that has happened and what seems like his unrealistic date with the death chamber and the needle with the chemical mix awaiting him. He makes a weak protestation of innocence, but the circumstances that put him on death row and his life until that point are the issues that Herzog pursues.

As to capital punishment itself, the most moving moments are the interviews with a prison chaplain who is obviously weary of having escorted so many men to their deaths, and even more so, the candid comments of one of the executioners who had to call it quits after about 125 or so such experiences and the acknowledgment that he couldn’t do it any longer.

There is an extensive interview with Burkett about his background and situation, and a heartrending interview with his father, also imprisoned, who castigates himself for having failed his son by not being there for him and seeing that he got a proper education and fatherly love. It also turns out that a woman has fallen in love with young Burkett and married him, and although prison sex has been forbidden to them, has become pregnant with his child. Herzog’s interview with her reveals some of the bizarre things that occur in this Texas environment. Interviews with acquaintances also reveal much of the underside of Texas life, including a situation of illiteracy that most likely is widespread.

Herzog evens his film with focus on victims of the crime, notably the surviving daughter of the woman killed, compounded by the murder of her brother. She tells how her life has been wrecked leaving her no one left, and one’s heart goes out to her as she shows Herzog (and us) family photographs. There is also emphasis on the need for retribution and the ability to move on. But after attending Perry’s execution, the daughter of the victim observed that Perry seemed just a boy and although she felt he deserved his fate she could take no pleasure in it.

Herzog’s achievement in his film, every bit as engrossing as fiction or more so, is to get in and dig into how people grow up, how they live and the circumstances that can lead to crime, and in the process explore how society deals with criminality. In the case of Texas, the answer has been a orgy of executions. “Into the Abyss,” subtitled “A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life,” is a major profile of a certain strata of society and by inference a look at America and its reliance on capital punishment. A Sundance Selects release.


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