Werner Herzog’s most recent documentary is an exploration of the death penalty here in America, and the plethora of complications inherent in such a system of punishment. However, “Into the Abyss” is anything but your average prison commentary.
The layout and overall flow of the film is just absolutely exquisite. It’s a documentary done up in a style that is uniquely Herzog. His eloquence and manner of communicating with others is an art form in and of itself. I was tickled just hearing him formulate questions in his heavy German accent to these young gentlemen on Death Row. If you’re not familiar with Herzog’s body of work, he specializes in the “other side of the story.” In a documentary where the morality of the death penalty is the clear subject, Herzog manages to delve deeper and create a character-driven narrative that goes well beyond the primary commentary.
In fact, the film itself takes a deliberately neutral approach to the murders in question — a triple homicide in the heart of Texas with two young men facing life sentences, one on Death Row. The accused, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, are interviewed from behind the bars of their cell, but the film broadens its scope to include the friends and family members of the convicted killers. The inclusion of apastor and his firsthand experiences with Death Row inmates offers an added level of much-needed perspective as well. But the interviews with Burkett’s wife are far and away the most intriguing element, seeing as the two met after his conviction and forged an undeniably bizarre connection.
The details of the murder case are discussed in depth, but again, the film isn’t aimed toward pointing blame one way or another, which is what I like most about it. Also, unlike most of Herzog’s films, “Into the Abyss” offers minimal narration and no appearances by Herzog himself. The film stands to be his most straightforward documentary to date — a simply beautiful and poetic portrayal of the human psyche under great duress. It’s definitely a personal favorite from 2011 and a Blu-ray release that has been much anticipated since its film festival run. Between this and “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” Herzog outdid nearly everyone in terms of 2011’s documentaries.
I wish there was more to report about in terms of special features, but the trailer is the only extra included with this release. It would have been nice to see some behind-the-scenes bits and/or cutting room floor interviews. I was particularly intrigued about what drew Herzog to this case in particular, but that is never touched upon. For shame, because this is an A+ documentary with a D- special features selection.