The German filmmaker Werner Herzog has made a very long and fruitful career out of finding eerie beauty and menace in the oddest places. Nowhere is this more obvious than in his occasional documentaries, films which take us “out there” or “in there,” into dark places or dark corners of the human psyche.
With “Into the Abyss,” he looks at capital punishment. Ever the outsider looking in, Herzog examines it through the lens of one triple homicide and a man awaiting execution on Death Row in Texas. Herzog, interviewing from off camera (he’s never seen in this one), questions the killers, family members of those who died, a cop on the case and a former Captain of the Death Row team who finally, 125 executions into his career, snapped and came to the same conclusion that Herzog begins the film with — that capital punishment “is immoral.”
But it’s not a straight “death penalty is bad” issues documentary. Herzog examines the slaying of a woman, her son and her son’s friend by a couple of low-lifes the son and his friend knew, all because the two killers wanted the family’ s Camaro. Though our first views of the crime make it seem random, out of the blue, Herzog peels away the violent, ignorant working class culture that produced the killers and connected them to the victims.
Herzog has a European’s fascination with this Texas world of strip malls, abandoned service stations, trailer parks and McMansions. He doesn’t narrate, but the interviews with tearful survivors and the tearful repeat-offender dad of one of the killers shows a culture of brawling, violent, gun-crazed fundamentalists. Just living near a town named “Cut and Shoot” seemed to doom the victims. Herzog is empathetic and non-judgmental, even as his interview subjects try to rationalize their lives, declare their innocence and the like.
And “Into the Abyss,” opening here Friday, shows the director of “Grizzly Man’s” uncanny eye for arresting images. As with that film’s “found footage,” Herzog makes great use of the chillingly-lit actual crime-scene video shot by police as they investigated the murders fresh back in 2001 — blood that hasn’t dried, on hastily wrapped body floating in the lake where it was dumped.
This isn’t a film designed to free the innocent, discover the “real killers” or even make buttress arguments against capital punishment. But Herzog has managed another strange and intriguing look at a culture and the sorts of people it creates — victims, cops and criminals.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material and some disturbing images
Cast: Michael Perry, Jason Burkett, Werner Herzog
Credits: Written and directed by Wener Herzog, an IFC Films release. Running time 1:45.