Never known for being formulaic, Werner Herzog offers an intriguing alternative depiction of capital punishment in his documentary Into the Abyss.There are numerous conventional approaches to highlight the inhumanity of a brief and terminal penance strapped to a gurney – one often employed is to contrast sound-bites from campaigners, dripping with righteous rhetoric, with the grumblings of carefully-selected reactionaries and letting the argument against execution ride home on some tired metaphor. Other efforts, such as Fourteen Days in May, focus on the men convicted and subsequently put to death as a result of dubious evidence. Both styles invoke real indignation in the audience and aim to cement their message by showing the disparity between the supposed simplicity of ‘eye for an eye’ ideology and the murky human reality of the situation. In contrast to this anger, Herzog’s piece delivers a more crushing refrain: the desperate sadness surrounding such a brutal and futile practice.
Into the Abyss takes as its focus Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, convicted of killing three people in order to steal a car. Little time is devoted to investigating the professions of innocence from both men (each blames the other), but interviews with the police played over the top of slightly gratuitous crime-scene video leave no doubt that both men are guilty. Herzog instead constructs a series of interviews with those affected by the killings, including the accused, the bereaved and notably Burkett’s father, himself inside for murder. Herzog’s questions are typically bizarre (“Describe an experience with a squirrel”), but subtly directing; working around his line of enquiry with the required dexterity, his subjects tend to ruminate over their experiences in a more inventive and interesting way.
One element the film draws out is the destitution and hopelessness that permeates through the society in which these men have grown up. Sweeping shots of trailer park lots are voiced over with various tales of absent or incarcerated parents and the brutality of life in America’s economic underclass. The relatives of the victims who are interviewed actively state they did not want to see Perry strapped and injected (Burkett was saved the death penalty – showing the arbitrariness of sentencing in Texas) and one cannot help feeling horrified by the absurdity and desperation of the entire affair.
While Herzog succeeds in showing the misery surrounding a murder – and the futility of executing the perpetrators – he dwells a little too long on the peripheral characters and does not particularly explore the feelings of the men behind the glass. Perry in particular seems an interesting person, but Herzog is reluctant to press him on his outlook, which flits from the rumblings of the pantomime victim of miscarriage of justice, to religiously infused nihilism (refusing to ‘acknowledge’ the walls around him). The film as a whole has some very interesting segments, but Herzog meanders around the most crucial characters a little frustratingly. Perhaps, though, this is intended to not make the accused as figures of morbid fascination but to demonstrate how pointless executing a man who would otherwise spend a life behind bars is.
Throughout the interviews the subjects talk of violent crime with an awful flippancy, maybe born out of a culture whose disciplinary body dispatches human life with an apparent eagerness. Into the Abyss offers no overtly damning criticisms of capital punishment; it is more a detached observation of the effects of a killing whose beauty lies in its subtlety and refusal to deliver grandiose judgments. Herzog’s film shows the true misery caused by death by any hand, which makes for a moving piece that asks why one would cling to the Old Testament mentality which condemns a dozen a year in Texas alone.
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