There are few things less Werner Herzogian than an issue film. The German filmmaking titan thrives on trekking into the unknown guided only by his unique brand of eccentricity, uninterested in merely having his beliefs confirmed. So, you’re justified in being wary of Into the Abyss, his second doc this year and his first work since the otherwordly Kuwaiti oil fires film Lessons of Darkness to be remotely topical.
Arriving in the wake of Troy Davis and the candidacy of an execution-happy governor, Abyss considers the case of Michael Perry, who, along with friend Jason Burkett, was convicted of the truly senseless murders of several people over a sweet ride. Burkett received life imprisonment; Perry, execution. Interviewed by Herzog eight days before his own murder, Perry maintains his innocence, even while appearing disarmingly calm, collected and in no way suggestive of someone who won’t exist in a handful of days.
Some have carped that the loose and chatty Abyss doesn’t succeed as an issue film, which is tantamount to charging something with failing to do an act it has no interest in performing. Herzog is fundamentally unequipped for tract, and he knows it. “I’m against the death penalty,” he announces within the first reel, and with that out of the way he’s free to focus on other, less explored matters.
He chats at length with Burkett, Burkett’s career prisoner father, Burkett’s pregnant bride—who fell for him while he was imprisoned—and the family members of the slain, including a sister, Lisa, who is allowed to be pro-death penalty without being grilled. It wouldn’t be a Herzog film without the occasional odd digression—e.g., asking a prison chaplain about squirrels—but the filmmaker, heard but never seen, is so gentle, his voice so soothing, you could imagine him having yet another career as a Dr. Phil-esque daytime talk show host. Instead of the focus, capital punishment becomes the mere starting point for a free-ranging exploration of how a single, inexplicable and tragic event defines those affected by it. If it indeed makes a case for “the urgency of life”—the title of the coda—it does so without blunt force.
Read our interview with filmmaker Werner Herzog here.