'Into the Abyss' chilling look at death penalty
Werner Herzog's haunting documentary about executions, "Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life," is full of devastating scenes, but its point of view — the death penalty should be abolished — and the inscrutable nature of its subjects, murderers Jason Burkett and Michael Perry, somehow prevent the film from going anywhere.
Seattle Times movie critic
'Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life,' a documentary directed by Werner Herzog. 106 minutes. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material and some disturbing images. Varsity.
It's a small room, painted a chalky hospital green that seems to glow just a bit in the light, equipped with a digital clock, a microphone, a viewing window. In its center sits a gurney, with yellow leather straps attached. Down the hall is a waiting area, with Bibles (in English and Spanish), a box of tissues and a telephone that may or may not ring. It is an execution chamber in Texas, and it is where men — and a few women — go to die.
Werner Herzog's haunting documentary "Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life" has a clear point of view: Such places, he says, should not exist. The film is Herzog's meandering way of thinking through the issue, using a 2001 triple murder in Conroe, Texas, as its centerpiece. In interviewing the eerily smiling Michael Perry, who with Jason Burkett was convicted of the crime, Herzog makes his feelings clear: "When I talk to you, it does not necessarily mean I like you. But I respect you as a human being, and I believe human beings should not be executed."
The film unfolds as a collage of voices: After a review of the crime, we hear interviews with the killers, with family members (of both prisoners and victims), with death-row workers. Some of these moments are devastating: the footage of the crime scene, where a victim was interrupted in the midst of baking cookies (days later, the cookbook is still open on the counter); the quiet anguish of a victim's daughter, who has endured a seemingly unthinkable series of tragedies; a former "death squad" captain who quit his job, forfeiting his pension, because he "didn't believe in it any more"; the sad-eyed shame of Burkett's incarcerated father, who says he was a failure as a parent.
But though Herzog seems determined to understand Perry and Burkett, they remain inscrutable; regardless of how viewers may feel about the death penalty, these young men don't seem worthy of our time. This tireless chronicler of the human condition seems to have hit a wall when interviewing these men (each of whom blames the other) — and, since Herzog has laid out his position so firmly at the beginning, the movie doesn't have anywhere to go. The coverage of the crime is grimly fascinating, but has odd gaps (we learn virtually nothing, for example, about the trial). At the end, Herzog clings determinedly to hope, to the idea that the cycle of violence may yet be broken, and to the value of life. It's an uneven movie, but a heartfelt and honest one.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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