When looking for documentaries with depth and sophistication, Werner Herzog is in a class of his own. Recently released on Blu-ray, Into The Abyss is a gripping look at the death penalty, a triple homicide, and the lives of those involved. Straightforward by Herzog standards, it clearly and directly investigates the relationships people have with their societal context, but also, as the title implies, with their own souls.
He believes states should not execute people. But far from the partisan crusades we're used to from documentary diva Michael Moore and kind, Herzog penetrates different layers of his topic without coloring the opinions of his subjects or putting himself into the limelight. Instead he asks questions quietly from off-screen, letting his subjects paint the portrait.
Michael Perry and Jason Burkett were convicted of murdering a fifty-year old woman, her son, and his friend over a car. DNA evidence puts them at the scene but they both deny guilt. The interview takes place eight days before Michael Perry's execution by lethal injection. His childlike smile is likely to stick in anyone's head for a long time. Burkett, meanwhile, received the lesser sentence of life in prison. This lenience was allegedly the result of testimony from Burkett's father, himself a life-long criminal and by his own admission, no father at all.
Fans of Herzog will recognize his method. Subjects always finish their thoughts. The camera often rolls after they finish speaking revealing facial ticks, insecurities, and emotional composure - the spontaneous truth of the human face. Though occasionally uncomfortable, these moments are windows to internal realities. Simply sitting still and paying attention, Herzog brings us closer to the whole truth than most filmmakers.
Interviews with friends and family on both sides enrich the economical, moral, religious, and personal context, showing the environments that produced these crimes. Interviews with a minister to execution victims and a former law officer who carried out executions expand the emotional territory even further. Because they don't know the victims, their accounts are not flavored with the anguish of personal loss and show the natural empathy of human beings in the face of government approved life-taking.