Into the Abyss (2011)
Not what I was expecting, and, for once, that’s not a good thing.
Into the Abyss is a documentary about two men from Texas: Michael Perry and Jason Burkett. After being convicted for a senseless triple homicide they committed in 2001, Perry and Burkett were sentenced to death and life in prison, respectively. Through a series of interviews conducted over the course of a year, we hear from the convicts themselves and those they’ve affected since having been brought to justice.
The only other documentary by Werner Herzog that I’ve seen is Grizzly Man, and while I liked Grizzly Man, it wasn’t without it problems, or should I say problem. Don’t get me wrong, the man makes good movies, and I can see why he’s regarded as an Untouchable of sorts in some circles, but the problem, strangely enough, isn’t so much his movies as it is Herzog himself. Despite how intriguing the subjects of his films are – subjects that speak volumes without his involvement – it’s his insistence on writing himself into them that always makes me wonder.
With Grizzly Man, he ultimately used the film as a soap box to voice his opinions on Timothy Treadwell and whether or not the man had any place living amongst bears in the first place. Treadwell alone was more than enough to keep me interested for two hours, but why Herzog found his ramblings to be the perfect complement to a story about a guy who lived with bears is beyond me. See what I’m getting at?
So with Into the Abyss, it’s hard to say what exactly Herzog was trying to get at.
It all starts out with him interviewing a priest who talks about how his time spent with death row inmates has made him realize how fragile and important life truly is. Then it shifts to Herzog interviewing Michael Perry – the convict on death row with less than two weeks left to live. With formalities out of the way, Herzog tells Perry that even though he might not like him, he does respect him because he doesn’t believe in capital punishment. At that point, I’m thinking this is a great setup for a death penalty documentary, something that’s gonna divide viewers like gangbusters and get them talking ’til they’re screaming. This is a movie I would love to see.
But that’s not the movie I got.
Instead, Herzog shifts gears and talks with an officer who goes over the triple homicide and takes us to where the bodies were found. Then he talks with the family members of the victims, asking them where they were when they heard the news and whether they were close with their siblings. Then he talks to a prison guard who used to oversee executions. Then he talks to Jason Burkett’s father, a guy who’s spent pretty much his entire life behind bars. Then he talks to Burkett’s wife. Then he talks with a guy who kind of knew Burkett, and proceeds to ask him a lot of questions about what it’s like to learn how to read at such a late age. And, no, I have no clue why he got so hung up on that tidbit.
After starting things off the way he did, I don’t know why Herzog decided to halt his initial line of questioning that was working so well. These are the people who would have some incredibly compelling opinions on the death penalty, yet most of their time is spent talking about anything but. And not that what they do have to say isn’t compelling in its own right, it was just a lost opportunity for Herzog to ask the question that everyone watching this will undoubtedly be thinking: “Do Michael Perry and Jason Burkett deserve to die?” On top of that, this isn’t Rhode Island we’re talkin’ about, this is Texas, a state where you get the chair for jaywalking. This is a story that revolves around a triple homicide, and with the setting to boot, I couldn’t think of a more (for lack of a better word) ideal platform to really talk about the death penalty from all sides of the equation.
What makes it worse was that watching Herzog question these people was like watching a prosecutor lead a witness. If the interviewee doesn’t feel like talking about something or finishes a thought without saying what Herzog wants to hear, he’ll ask them a follow-up question that get them to do just that, without fail. For example:
Herzog approaches the bench, “How do you feel about what happened to your brother?”
The woman weeps into the microphone, “I don’ know. I can’t put it into words.”
Herzog persists, “Would you say that you’re feeling…sad?”
She nods, “Yes, I’m feeling sad.”
“Objection, your honor!,” yells Aiden from behind, kicking out his chair like a total boss.
One of the great thing about documentaries is that they capture life as it happens, not as a filmmaker wants it to happen. Maybe I’m just naive when it comes to what really happens on the set of a documentary, but something about putting words in people’s mouths strikes me as a serious slight towards the beauty of the medium and it only mutes the impact of what’s being said in the first place.
As much as Herzog’s approach tainted the experience for me, it is his movie and it’s as much his prerogative to put himself into it as it is mine to write myself into a review. If that means getting on a soapbox or forcing a conversation of sorts, then so be it. Then again, this isn’t his story. He’s not the one in shackles, he’s not the one whose family’s been murdered. The stories I’m anxious to hear aren’t his, and I wish he’d taken that into greater account.
Although, like Timothy Treadwell, the interviewees do make up for it. The tragic lives of these people are completely foreign to me, ones I never hope to empathize with, but given their circumstances and what they’ve had to go through, their testimonies hit home. It’s heartbreaking to hear Burkett’s father talk about having to celebrate Thanksgiving with his son behind bars. It’s eerie to hear the former guard talk about his days as executioner. And, more than anything, it’s scary to hear Michael Perry deny his horrific crimes to the teeth, right up to his injection. Brought back visions of Rashomon and the things people will say to clear their conscience, even with death at the door. And speaking of bizarre, don’t even get me started on Burkett’s wife who fell for him after she started writing letters to him in prison. I will never understand that kind of “love.”
I’ve been on a mean streak as of late in the great documentary front, so much so that I can’t even remember the last time one left me so lukewarm. As a portrait of people coping with, and/or preparing for, death, Into the Abyss is fascinating. As a testament to anything more insightful than that, it falters under Herzog’s ego. Ultimately, it’s less of a conversation than it is a passing glance at life, and that’s a shame given the potential at his disposal. So much more could have been gained from the people in this movie, but what is gained is nevertheless worth hearing.