Werner Herzog never makes thing easy on himself. Sitting on the other side of a glass partition talking to a convicted killer in Into the Abyss becomes the tough-minded moral equivalent of the physical challenges in his earlier films, like trudging through the jungle or across Antarctica. “I don’t have to like you,” Herzog tells Michael Perry, and this murderer who has found Jesus looks a little stunned.
Herzog’s quickly-made doc has a sense of urgency; he interviewed Perry, on death row in Texas, just eight days before his scheduled execution. But the film’s most powerful feature may be Herzog’s fierce, uncompromising stand against the death penalty. The typical, easier argument is that innocent people have been convicted; think of all those prisoners freed on DNA evidence. Herzog’s position has nothing to do with innocence, and comes down to this: the man is a killer, but we don’t get to kill him back. Herzog has no illusions about how hard that may be for some people to accept.
He interviews a woman whose mother and brother were murdered by Perry, as well as a minister who has seen too many executed men at their last moments, and a death row guard who burned out on the harrowing experience. But Into the Abyss soon veers into areas that make it less about the death penalty and more about the causes of crime. Perry and his accomplice, Jason Burkett - sentenced to a long prison term, also interviewed here – murdered a suburban woman because they wanted her car, and killed her son to keep him quiet.
The crime is hideous and pathological. But as Herzog interviews the friends, family and neighbors of the men involved, we begin to see a larger pattern of blighted lives, generations of fathers and sons in prison, illiteracy, poverty. Herzog makes no apologies for them, and this broad social view may be even more depressing than a crazed, isolated murder.
In his usual style, we hear Herzog off-camera during the interviews. His disembodied voice is more penetrating than if he were a visual presence, and his even-toned cadences eerier than if he’d gone for over-the-top effect.
There is a brief glimpse of humor when Perry says to Herzog, “You might want to get out of Texas as soon as possible,” because they’ll arrest and kill just about anyone down there. (Very hard to argue against that.) But overall Into the Abyss is haunting - newsworthy in its immediacy, lingering in the deft, specific way it presents us with the most complex social and moral questions.
Into the Abyss arrives in theaters on Nov 11th.