REVIEW: ‘Into the Abyss.’ Werner Herzog, Deep in the Heart of Texas.
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.