Into The Abyss could have easily exchanged its title with director Werner Herzog’s other recent documentary Encounters at the End of the World (2008), his fictional My Son My Son What Have Ye Done? (2009), or his docu-fiction crossbreed Lessons of Darkness (1992), and still have retained a poetic resonance under that name. Herzog applies his skill as a seeker and a watcher, more distilled in his methods than ever before, and more the beholder than ever before. His unpretentious charisma coaxes honest revelations out of his subjects by virtue of direct yet unassuming inquiry.
Structured in six parts, Into The Abyss is the result of Herzog’s own interest in making a film about capital punishment, and about the souls ensnared on both sides of tragedy. Having intended to profile several cases, Herzog found himself wholly absorbed by the case of Michael Perry and Jason Burkett; both convicted as teenagers of a triple homicide over possession of a stolen car in 2001 in Conroe, Texas. Tried separately, Perry was given the death penalty, whereas Burkett was given life in prison. This fateful divide is but one of many strands in an ethically complex and emotionally dredging investigation that refuses to be merely topical.
Though thorough in his coverage of the crime – detailed by testimony and crime scene footage – consider the crime itself a pebble tossed into a pond, and then consider the subject of the film being the ripples. Herzog is enamored of people, especially their descriptions of things both physical and abstract. He is even able to nurture small moments of humor that don’t undermine the drama, but rather surface from within it as a kind of human impulse. The ethics at the center of this story are present, but aren’t pointed at. The director wisely defers to the viewer to discern and debate.
Into The Abyss is spare and even-handed in its un-orchestrated blur of morality; unorchestrated in that the sheer humanity of the interviewees themselves – impressed through their own words, tones and gestures – is what dismantles the viewers hardwired right / wrong mechanism. Rather than scholars or psychologists, or even lawyers, the interviewees are the centermost people to the event; Michael Perry, Jason Burkett, an officer who attended the scenes of the crime, and radiates outward to the victims’ surviving siblings, Burkett’s Father, Burkett’s wife whom he met and married after incarceration, a townsperson who encountered Burkett, a Barista from the bar where Burkett and Perry brought the infamous stolen car to brag, and even a Death Row warden.
Ultimately, Herzog’s film is an analysis of people confronted directly with the nature of chaos. The “abyss” isn’t death, imprisonment or execution. It is this very world in which we live; where anything held onto can be taken, where as many dark impulses as light sway within us, and where death can come out of the blue. It is that fact that must be reconciled by the living. Though pain and loss abounds in these lives entwined by murder, glimmers of hope are drawn just as inextricably into the fabric, and Herzog captures them simply.
Into the Abyss opens today at the Ritz at the Bourse.