Basic cable has been chockablock with true-crime coverage for some time, but the new feature documentary Into the Abyss—about murders committed by teenagers, the American justice system, and capital punishment—has an ace in the hole: the distinctly off-kilter perspective of German director Werner Herzog.
Like other Herzog docs (including Grizzly Man and Cave of Forgotten Dreams), Into the Abyss comes with Herzog’s quirky Teutonic narration and investigative style. The director plops himself down smack in the middle of Texas to talk to convicted criminals serving hard time and the hardest time (on Death Row), their keepers, police, clergymen, and victims’ family members. It seems unlikely that Katie Couric would ask a death row chaplain, “Why does God allow capital punishment?” or a woman who lost her mother and younger brother in a crime spree, “Why did they die?”
Perhaps there’s a coldness to this existential curiosity, but Herzog shows an interest in personality and the psychic toll of the strange events on which he performs a post-mortem. Much of the film (subtitled "A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life") picks through the crime scenes and the timeline that made the case against Jason Burkett, now serving a forty-year sentence, and Michael James Perry, who is scheduled for imminent execution when Herzog interviews him. While the slow-paced true-crime sequences add little (beyond confirming the senselessness of the crimes), the interviews that make up the balance of the film yield plenty of oddities of modern American life.
A former bartender who had a brush with the perpetrators admits, plainly and disturbingly, “I have seen so many awful things.” It’s safe to say that’s true of the other interviewees, including a local acquaintance of the killers who expresses gratitude for having learned to read in jail, and Berkett’s dad Delbert, who is serving his own life sentence of murder in a facility facing that of his son. In a coup of editing, Herzog cuts from Jason, reflecting on what he’ll be like in forty years, to Delbert, who appears as if he could be Jason in forty years. It’s an eerily affecting moment.
Delbert goes on to describe his terrible guilt as a father who holds himself responsible for his son’s failures and, in a small measure of redemption, his son’s escape of a death sentence.
That Berkett will live while Perry dies is but one of the glaring absurdities the film implicitly point out, and while it’s not hard to figure that Herzog’s stands against the death penalty, his film takes pains to give voice to victims’ families (indeed, the film is dedicated to them). Essentially, Into the Abyss is the documentary version of the superior 1995 drama Dead Man Walking. If Herzog’s scavenger hunt of emotion can seem exploitative (especially in the late-breaking tabloid-friendly surprise), ultimately the film’s collection of voices provides another opportunity to reflect on a polarizing issue that isn’t likely to go away any time soon.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]