Into the Abyss: Film Review

Into the Abyss - Movie Still - H - 2011
A disquieting, heartbreaking look at American crime and punishment.

Werner Herzog's second non-fiction film of the year is a troubling inquiry into capital punishment in the U.S.

It could be argued that Werner Herzog has been gazing into the abyss, unblinking, for much of his career, and the results have often been transcendent. Into the Abyss, the prolific filmmaker’s second documentary to hit theaters this year, doesn’t soar but bores in deep, for an unsettling inquiry into capital punishment in America. Opening Nov. 11 after its AFI Fest screenings, it’s certain to be among the year’s most-seen and most-lauded non-fiction features.

Where the spring release Cave of Forgotten Dreams occupies the lyrical end of the spectrum, the new film revolves around a triple homicide in Conroe, Texas. The doc isn’t framed as a political debate — there’s nary a mention of governors George Bush or Rick Perry, whose state holds the country’s most active death chamber, and little in the way of argument. Abyss is, rather, akin to a non-fiction version of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Killing, which compared a senseless crime with the resulting act of premeditated murder on the part of the government.

Herzog, who makes his opposition to the death penalty clear at the outset, has not chosen a transparently emblematic case. Michael Perry, the 28-year-old condemned man he interviews eight days before his scheduled execution, is no poster boy for the Innocence Project, although with his goofy smile he could pass for16.

The director is an off-screen presence, heard posing questions but refraining from his trademark brooding narration. With cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, a frequent collaborator, Herzog visits the lake where Sandra Stotler’s body surfaced, and the woods where her murdered teen son and his friend were found. Heuses police crime-scene videos to set the chilling scene of a woman’s life cut short, the better to steal her red Camaro. Stotler was, the evidence shows, in the midst of baking a batch of cookies.

Herzog is an astute and disarming interviewer. His conversations with cops, the two convicted men, their relatives and those of the victims collectively paint a picture of Conroe, its gated communities and struggling working class, but also of something less easily defined: the existential weight of hope and dread. His most haunting encounters are with the Reverend Richard Lopez, who administers last rites to death row inmates and stays with them to the very end, and retired prison employee Fred Allen. As captain of the Huntsville penitentiary’s Death House guard detail, Allen oversaw the preparation of more than 125 prisoners for execution. A huge living room clock marking time behind him, he explains his change of heart. Even after years away from the job, the cumulative trauma is evident.

The human comedy is also an inextricable part of the story. As far back as 1977’s Stroszek, Herzog has regarded the absurdities of the American cultural landscape with an outsider’s amazement. He still brings that perspective, even though he’s lived in the U.S. for years. Abyss, to be sure, has its share of bizarre twists.

But above all it’s a portrait of stunned grief, of the devastation families endure, whether through violence, accidents, illness or incarceration. The tale unfolds with clinical precision and profound curiosity, not least when Zeitlinger’s camera enters the room where lethal injections take place in Huntsville, surveying the gurney and the disconcertingly cheery green of the walls.

True-crime stories have cluttered the small screen in recent years, almost all of them concerned merely with shock value. As an artist, Herzog naturally is interested in far more than the material facts of murder. As a journalist, he presses into the dark margins and brings back a mournful report.

Venue: AFI Fest
Opens Friday, Nov. 11 (Sundance Selects)
A Creative Differences/Skellig Rock production in association with Spring Films, Werner Herzog Film and More 4
Director: Werner Herzog
Producer: Erik Nelson
Executive producers:Dave Harding, Amy Briamonte, Henry Schleiff, Sara Kozak, Andre Singer, Lucki Stipetic
Director of photography: Peter Zeitlinger
Music: Mark Degli Antoni
Editor: Joe Bini
No rating, 106 minutes