Into the Abyss

Texas Death Row inmate Michael James Perry, 8 days before his execution in July, 2010

Neuer Deutscher Film director Werner Herzog‘s cameras have taken us everywhere by now, from the jungles of South America in Fitzcarraldo to the Alaskan tundra in Grizzly Man to the prehistoric caves of France in Cave of Forgotten Dreams to a settlement on Antarctica in Encounters at the End of the World. Now, he takes us to the end of the line.

In Into the Abyss Herzog directs his attention to Texas’s death row, where a baby-faced killer (there’s little doubt he is a killer) is about to get a lethal injection for his part in a triple homicide. A foe of capital punishment himself (calling his own country’s murderous excesses of the Nazi era a difference of degree, not of kind), Herzog looks at the phenomenon from every angle, including the crime itself, the grief of the victims, the troubled upbringings of the perpetrators, and the feelings of crucial prison employees involved in the process. The experience feels merciless at times, as Herzog’s questions probe at old wounds, and his camera stays coldly trained on his subjects for uncomfortable lengths of time.

He gets amazing interviews from these people  — ordinary people coming out with uncommonly wise and moving sentiments. His trickiest hurdles were clearly the prison interviews, where he only had a half hour to record his subjects. He was obviously walking a tightrope. If he pressed too hard he’d risk spooking the person and losing the interview. (Although at one point he tells Perry point blank, “Just because I’m against capital punishment doesn’t necessarily mean that I approve of or like you” — which wipes the smile off the face of the slippery little huckster for at least a second). But on the whole, we miss some of the hardballs that might have made this exploration more complete. The two boys killed a woman and two other young men in order to steal their car. Why? Why, why, why? Both of the young men being punished for the crime claim to be innocent and it couldn’t be more obvious that they are lying. Herzog’s camera catches that much at least.

It also catches descriptions of the death by injection process, the regret of an executioner who had to quit, and the tears of the prison chaplain. As well as the satisfaction of the sister and daughter of one of the victims.

What’s the right path? What do we do with these kinds of criminals if not execute them? Herzog stubbornly refuses to answer, despite his own convictions on the subject. His film makes an equation: murder is murder and it’s all bad, whether it’s being committed by a couple of methed-up maniacs or by a guy in a uniform. How society stops violent crime, that’s another movie I guess.

In the Abyss opens today as part of the DOC NYC festival. For more info go here.

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