1. When I first heard about "Into the Abyss," I thought -- with some justification, I must say -- that it was going to be a typical Werner Herzog treatise on death and the void that follows. (As "typical" as anything Herzog does can be, of course.) Herzog, with that signature, almost farcical, philosopher's tenor, intoning from 30,000 feet up on man's inhumanity to man, the brutality of human beings, man's true animal nature, all that. Herzog's celebrity has grown so much in the last few years that his persona was starting to outshine those of his subjects; in "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," I found myself begging him to move already so I just could see the timeless cave paintings I'm ostensibly here to see. But in "Into The Abyss," Herzog, for once, finds himself less concerned with the Larger Themes of the Universe and simply concentrates on the devastating details at hand. It, of course, ends up being the most profound film he's ever made.
2. The film opens with Herzog talking to Michael Perry, a twenty-some-odd year old convict on death row for a triple murder a decade earlier. Perry is cocky, self-assured and in total denial about his fate, just eight days away from his scheduled execution. This would seem to be an invitation for Herzogian musings on what a human does when he knows the exact date of his death, but Herzog pivots, telling Perry he doesn't believe in capital punishment and then, amazingly, going about explaining why so many others would. Rather than cheat and try to "humanize" the man on death row, Herzog takes us back to the murders themselves, the families, the witnesses, the arrested officers and even Perry's accomplice, Jason Burkett. Each of them, in their own way, had their lives blown apart by the murders. It's a bit shocking, how much Herzog makes sure we feel the pain in the aftermath of the murder; he doesn't want to let anyone off easy.
3. This is, for most of its running time, a fascinating, deeply sad true crime tale, one that's more an ongoing study of human characters than any sort of polemic, or even a mystery. It's impressively disciplined for Herzog: I don't remember him ever being quite this meticulous. We meet the tragic woman who lost both her mother and her brother in the slayings. We meet the estranged brother of another victim, one who was always getting into trouble himself, who can't believe he's not the one who met an unfortunate early end. We meet the father of the accomplice Burkett, who has spent most of his life in prison and finds himself personally responsible for the disaster his son's life turned out to be. (There's a harrowing scene when he describes being handcuffed to his own son. Imagine that.) We meet the police officer who came across the crime scene for the first time. We see the crime scene. We see the victim's blood. We see that she had been making cookies.
4. This is all done with Herzog's unrelenting, observing, yet oddly warm, eye; you can even sense a twinkle in Herzog's eye when he meets some of the more rough-edged Texas residents, including one who was stabbed with a screwdriver in the armpit by one of the assailants but went ahead and showed up to work on time anyway. He's our guide to this world, and one gets the sense that, at some point in the process of making this film, Herzog realized his movie and his story was much larger and more important than a doodle on capital punishment. For one of the few times since Herzog's recent popular resurgence, I trusted him every second of this movie. He has genuine empathy for all these people, regardless of their relative levels of guilt or pain. A senseless act, done for nothing but a car that remained stolen for about four hours, changes hundreds of people's lives, forever. And there is no meaning to it. Herzog is able to move us with a story that is, essentially, nihilist.
5. Herzog recognizes this, and why he came here in the first place, with a closing interview with a man who has worked for the state of Texas for decades, providing last meals and organizing schedules for those damned to execution. This has been his life's work, walking them to the gurney, strapping them in, asking for their last words; he considered it a job, and, all told, a just one. He no longer feels this way. The toll the work has taken on him is agonizing, and as he tells of quitting his job (and losing his pension) because he couldn't go on institutionalizing murder, you can tell that the one life he did save was his own. What Herzog is saying is that these acts of violence like the one Perry was on death row for are random, and senseless, and destructive for everyone involved (and even those who aren't). It is empty and awful and pointless and humanity at its worst. The only sane response, as a people, to such madness is not to compound the problem, not to create other acts of violence that divide and vivisect us in unforeseen ways. Herzog makes the case against capital punishment by making the case for it. It is a virtuoso work, unparalleled in his career. And it'll just break your heart.