On one level, Werner Herzog’s “Into the Abyss” is an appeal to end capital punishment, but it’s not the kind of documentary that drives policy change. The thoughtful helmer’s probing death-row doc offers no statistics, no dramatic reenactments, no angry ultimatum lobbed at lawmakers — just testimony from convicted killers, the victim’s families and several cogs in Texas’ criminal justice system. It does get you thinking, and by now, Herzog has amassed a loyal enough following that this Sundance Selects release should engage a sizable aud willing to go as deep as he does.
As one of cinema’s most intellectually curious directors, Herzog can be trusted to ask the right questions of his subjects — despite the fact he’s clearly unyielding in his anti-death penalty stance. The case against execution is only a tiny sliver of his inquiry, however, with the testimony he collects opening several rich veins of philosophical reflection.
Considering that Herzog grew up in a remote Bavarian village, life in Conroe, Texas (halfway between Houston and Huntsville, capital-punishment capital of the U.S.), must seem as alien to him as the Antarctica he witnessed in “Encounters at the End of the World.” That’s a good thing, since the director preserves an Alexis de Tocqueville-like outsider’s perspective toward characters that others (including this Texas-raised film critic) might dismiss as “white trash.”
Herzog tapes his key interview with Michael James Perry eight days before Perry is scheduled to die of lethal injection. “I don’t have to like you,” Herzog tells the killer at the outset of their conversation, and the kid flashes back a big, buck-toothed grin (at 28, he still looks like a minor). Perry maintains his innocence, which suggests a potential dead-end for one of the film’s themes: Why do people kill?
But “Abyss” transitions from this prison visit to crime-scene footage of the deceptively quiet Texas home where Perry and three friends blasted a classmate’s mother with a shotgun, and the back road where they lured and then executed two teens. The murderers’ motive: To steal a red Camaro, which they had in their possession for less than 72 hours.
Just as Truman Capote did with “In Cold Blood,” Herzog leaves his ivory tower to investigate a seemingly inexplicable, unspeakably violent heartland homicide. He tours the lethal injection chamber and chats with retired Death House captain Fred Allen (by far his most eloquent source), but refrains from observing the execution itself, drawn instead toward the many lives turned upside-down by the triple murder.
Though Perry got the death penalty, a jury gave his accomplice, Jason Burkett, a life sentence, most likely swayed by a plea from Burkett’s father, who repeats his case for Herzog’s cameras. It doesn’t seem fair that Perry should die while Burkett walks, and yet, “Abyss” paints such a depressing portrait of Conroe (and aptly named neighboring city Cut and Shoot), you can’t fault the locals for wanting their most incorrigible citizens off the street one way or another.
Lisa Stotler-Balloun, daughter/sister/aunt (don’t ask) to two of the victims, takes comfort in the thought of attending Perry’s execution. The murders clearly devastated her, and every sentence she shares makes Herzog’s abyss seem all the more infinite.
It’s impressive how candid these people are, all of whom Herzog met for the first time oncamera and interviewed only once. Leading questions aside, his approach involves not only thinking on his feet but also gaining the confidence of people who have every reason to mask their emotions, then having the courage to ask follow-ups, however silly they might seem (for example, prodding Rev. Richard Lopez about an enlightening encounter with a squirrel yields unexpectedly profound results).
Though Herzog never appears onscreen, his hypnotic German accent — plus the faintest guitar score in places — invites further reflection. These days, true-crime docs are a dime a dozen, and yet, returning to the “In Cold Blood” analogy, “Into the Abyss” dares to plumb the dark hole in America’s soul. Herzog’s investigation may not work as an anti-death-penalty editorial, but its findings are undeniably profound.