Rare is the film review that makes you want to rush out to see a film immediately. but John P. McCarthy's review, in our online Culture section, of Werner Herzog's searing new film about the death penalty, had that effect on me. I'm a great fan of Herzog's eccentric but effective filmmaking style and the topic he confronts in "Into the Abyss" is of the greatest importance. McCarthy begins:
Considering Werner Herzog’s fascination with humankind’s relationship to the natural world, you would assume his latest documentary “Into the Abyss” has an oceanic or geological thrust. For his most recent nonfiction films, the German director traveled to Alaska to profile a doomed bear-lover (“Grizzly Man”); to Antarctica to interview scientists in their adopted habitat (“Encounters at the End of the World”); and to France to photograph Paleolithic art in 3-D (“Cave of Forgotten Dreams”). For this project, he ventured into equally forbidding and trenchant territory—the human chasm that is capital punishment as practiced by the State of Texas.
“Into the Abyss” centers on Michael Perry, a 28-year-old death-row inmate convicted for a triple homicide committed in the town of Conroe, Texas when he was a teenager. Herzog does not concern himself with guilt or innocence; he is not out to reinvestigate the crime or assess the merits of the legal case against Perry. Rather, with his trademark serendipity, tenacity and nose for the odd and offbeat, Herzog examines the conditions necessary for the murders and their aftermath. On July 1, 2010, eight days following Herzog’s sole interview with him, Perry was put to death by means of lethal injection.
Without offering arguments, Herzog declares his opposition to capital punishment early on in the movie when he tells Perry, “I think human beings should not be executed.” This typically forthright statement underscores Herzog’s brilliance as a documentarian. Unlike most nonfiction filmmakers, he does not feign objectivity. He makes his views known and brings them into play honestly so they don’t skew his analysis. By not pretending to filter out his own thoughts and opinions, while also eschewing judgment, Herzog is able to get at truths—to reveal what’s going on without obscuring the complexity of the issue he is addressing and without closing himself and his audience off to discovery.
The gravity of the subject matter, along with Herzog’s default mode of disarming frankness, gives “Into the Abyss” an appropriately somber tone. Partly because he chooses not to narrate, the deadpan irony he often deploys is muted, which isn’t to say the movie is totally humorless or that Herzog’s radar for wackiness has disappeared. He exhibits respectful sensitivity but it is possible to discern brief flashes of skeptical bemusement. As ever, he moves effortlessly between detailed anthropological investigation and imaginative, philosophical speculation.