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Film Review: Into the Abyss

Into the Abyss (2011; Directed by Werner Herzog)

“Describe an encounter with a squirrel,” intones the inimitable German filmmaker Werner Herzog off-camera in the opening moments of his remarkable documentary Into the Abyss. Herzog is exhorting a pastor ministering to death row inmates to share a story about the transience of mortality, the strange fortune of existence, and rodents with puffy tails. He does, and despite the easily-lampooned ponderous, over-articulate Herzogian framing, the pastor’s brief narrative is not ludicrous but sincere and strangely moving.

Or perhaps, like so much of Into the Abyss, it’s so sincere and moving because it’s so strange and ludicrous. Herzog takes an idiosyncratic view into an idiosyncratic crime, a brutal triple murder in Conroe, Texas that puts one perpetrator (Michael Perry) in line for the lethal injection gurney and another (Jason Burkett) in prison for a life sentence. Herzog interviews both men, separated from him and his camera by glass and metal in correctional unit visitation rooms. He also speaks to an investigator from the local sheriff’s office who gives him an overview of the details of the crime, family members and loved ones of both the convicted men and of their victims, and a retired death unit captain haunted and traumatized by his experiences as an executioner for the State of Texas. There are creepy crime scene videos, visits to sites involved in the murders, and quasi-poetic slice-of-life scenes from East Texas: Christian billboards, rusting pickups, flocks of birds swirling in the air above a garbage dump.

This is all standard true-crime documentary boilerplate, and Herzog even prefaces his exploration of the events and the fascinating characters around them with a statement of his moral opposition to the death penalty. But it’s the details that matter, and the odd volubility that Herzog displays in extracting them. Never seen, only heard, and keeping clear of the speculative existential voice-overs that mark another documentary feature highlight of his, Grizzly Man, Herzog is vocally present only in his esoteric lines of questioning to his subjects. The occasional query is constructed with such arch Herzogian obscurity and eloquence that the rural working-class types he speaks to seem only occasionally to grasp his meaning, but are stunned into disarming honesty nonetheless.

There are unexpected twists and baffling turns in the unspooling portrait of these damaged people and their variant reactions to the challenges of life. A long-incarcerated father who blames himself for his son’s criminal acts does something important for his boy in sentencing testimony. A legal advocate of one of the convicted uncovers much deeper feelings for her client. And a shattered family member of the victims, crushed under an avalanche of recent loss and tragedy, finds guilty and unexpected solace in the execution of her mother and brother’s murderer.

Certain figures stand out, including a roofer once stabbed with a screwdriver by one of the murderers (he didn’t even go to hospital) who Herzog treats like some species of rural proletarian ideal. Burkett’s eyes are intense and piercing; they are pitiless portals, but undeniably seductive too (it’s his legal aid who falls for him, marries him, and carries his child, all while he’s behind bars; you won’t believe quite how it all works). Burkett’s father is broken by a lifetime of incarceration, a man responsible for his bad choices who is redeemed by his powerful sense of emotional shame.

But Perry is the first principle figure that Herzog introduces, and he remains the most odd and unnerving player in this tragic drama. With his flat bangs, gap-toothed grin, and big-eyed boyish earnestness, he’s eerily reminiscent of Jim Carrey’s Lloyd Christmas from Dumb & Dumber. Only, you know, a cold-blooded and callous killer about to be put to death. All of the awful gravity of his deeds fades to the background and his youthful enthusiasm pushes to the fore when he narrates a surreal childhood summer camp experience to Herzog. As the director’s assured accented tones veer towards the incredulous, Perry relates a sojourn in the Everglades during which he drops his gear in the water, frets over parental waivers providing for alligator attacks, and describes an encounter with a monkey. Herzog commences his conversation with Perry by divulging that he does not expect to like the convict, and yet he clearly identifies with Perry’s assurance and communicative openness as a dark mirror of his own.

Faced with such unlooked-for complexity, viewers are surprised and they are moved, if not by sympathy precisely than by a sense of impotent sadness at the inescapable feedback loop of violence, death, and criminality that stretches from the poverty-stricken fringes of rural American society to its security-obsessed upper-middle-class and ineffective structure of legal process and punishment. This, more than anything, is the core thrust of Into the Abyss. Herzog allows the perpetrators to contradict and complicate the police investigator’s narrative of events, but does not use his film to construct a counter-narrative or to suggest that a miscarriage of justice has transpired. He largely leaves Perry’s avowal of innocence unexamined. This astounding film is not about a quest for justice, but about exposing the conspicuous hole at the centre of the comforting fortress of justice. Werner Herzog’s magisterial view of these events and the people involved in them portrays one heavy, sighing tragedy orbited by smaller ones, the whole atomic structure of human pain poised uncomfortably but immovably in advancing, unforgiving time. And yet, people endure and continue to be.

Categories: Film, Reviews

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