Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life
Written and Directed By: Werner Herzog
Featuring: Michael Perry, Jason Burkett
Director of Photography: Peter Zeitlinger, Editor: Joe Bini; Music: Mark Degli Antoni
Rated: PG-13 for thematic material and a few shocking images.
In an interview earlier this year, Werner Herzog mentioned that almost every film he has ever directed could have been called Into the Abyss. The abyss in Mr. Herzog’s filmography has been both one directed by the physical landscapes his characters often inhabit, but often more the psychological torment they go through while on these journeys. Is it Fitcarraldo’s own madness that drives him to carry the boat over the mountain, or the jungle that commands him? Is Timothy Treadwell simply insane, or does the isolation push him over the edge? And what of that penguin, walking toward certain death alone in Antarctica? Especially as a documentarian, Mr. Herzog has often found the most unique subjects and, through his own philosophical inquiries, transforms what is not just a re-telling of stories but a piercing look into human’s most fundamental emotions.
And so, for his film actually titled Into the Abyss, Mr. Herzog has chosen what actually seems like a subject not to his tastes: a story of a Texas Death Row Inmate, his partner serving a life sentence, and the crimes they committed. Mr. Herzog has never been a political figure, and the issue of the death penalty is one that doesn’t interest him. And Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life is in many ways his least Herzogian feature, as the director restrains himself occasionally to simply tell a tale not too different to In Cold Blood.
The decision to not go full caricature mode in both Mr. Herzog’s greatest strength and weakness. In his last film, the cave painting journey Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Mr. Herzog’s narration and total self-parody overshadowed his characters as he searched for unique odd balls. There’s no narration on nature or death in Into the Abyss; instead, the context is introduced through short but simple blocks of text on the screen. Mr. Herzog tells the story of two convicts, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett. It’s July 2010, and Mr. Perry is only days away from becoming the latest inmate to walk to the gurney for execution. Mr. Burkett has received a life sentence.
Mr. Herzog slowly fills in the details of their three murders—a mother killed while baking cookies for a stolen vehicle. Needing a code back into the gated community, her son and his friend were slain as well. There are disputed points in their case—each claims the other responsible, and only Mr. Perry is now facing Texas’s ultimate punishment—but this is not Mr. Herzog doing The Thin Blue Line. Instead, he tracks the psychology of those in the community: the priest who prays with each man at the gurney, the daughter whose family has been ripped apart, the lawyer who fell in love with the inmate.
Into the Abyss is a great showcase of what Mr. Herzog brings to the documentary form, specifically considering this subject has been done by other giants in the form. Featuring the footage from the scene of the crimes, he drains the sound in favor of the film’s ominous score. When he’s allowed to see the infamous stolen car, his interest piques at a story involving a tree that rooted itself inside the car. And during his interviews, he’ll often let the camera just sit on the faces for minutes in silence, just to observe their faces. You can sometime see that he’s limited by his subject—his interview with a former death row warden includes a question about the oddest requests, and you kind of get dejected with Mr. Herzog when the best answer is only marijuana.
However, this is in many ways Mr. Herzog’s most serious portrayal of human life, as he restrains himself from truly any oddball stories and leaves himself mostly out of the picture. There’s nothing truly revelatory about human nature in the way some of Mr. Herzog’s most bold pictures leave you shaking to your core, but the small observations about how people observe the fragility of life slowly add up like a steam becoming a waterfall. The overall picture of serenity in the wake before and after violence is something to marvel at; there’s no cries for justice, no screams of anguish, just the silence that fills the echoes of the plains of Texas, as death passes through the veins of one man.