‘Into the Abyss’ – an emotionally devastating work

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Into the Abyss

Written and directed by Werner Herzog

USA, 2011

Documentaries have an amazing power about them. In such a short amount of time, they can call into question every part of our morality, and ask us to determine right from wrong. If it’s effective, it can have you doing this for days after.

And here I am, days after seeing Into the Abyss, and I’m still asking myself questions.

Werner Herzog’s latest documentary masterwork tells the story of Michael James Perry and Jason Burkett, two men found guilty in the murder of a triple homicide in Texas, and all over a car. Though it makes sure to tell both their stories, it pays special attention to Perry, who is due to be executed just days after completing his interview.

This is where morality comes into question. On the surface, it could be perfectly easy for someone to look at someone who’s committed this type of crime and feel no remorse at the thought of their imminent death. But Herzog has never been one to settle for the black-and-white, and does his best to show Perry (Burkett as well, but mostly Perry) not as some sort of sick monster, but as a real human being, who’s consistent bad decisions led him to where he is. It never quite asks us to feel bad for him, as he even admits that the mistakes were his. You can’t help but feel that though this is a terrible crime he committed, he’s still a person through, and he’s a person staring death right in the face.

Herzog also makes it easy to see how some of these mistakes could be made. Almost no one interviewed, whether they were involved in some way with the crime or just a resident of the area, came from a family where someone wasn’t in prison at some point. Burkett’s own father is serving out a sentence across the street from where his son is kept. It’s almost shocking just how commonplace the discussions of crimes and jail time come off, and only raises more questions. Yes, these mistakes are his, but what drove him to make them?

Equally effective are the interviews with those who make their living performing executions. In fact, the basic idea and tone of Into the Abyss is set in the very beginning, during an interview with a prison chaplain. During their discussion, he breaks down, and talks at great lengths about his desire to somehow save the lives of these men, but knowing there isn’t a thing he can do.

But Herzog doesn’t keep it one-sided. There’s his in-depth look into the crime itself, complete with actual footage from the scenes and interviews with the families of the victims. The footage from the crime scenes is morbid and disturbing, but never gets graphic, though it does tease, which in a way is much worse. This, coupled with the heartbreaking testimony from relatives of the deceased, is enough to call into question everything you’ve been thinking. Burkett and Perry may be human beings, but do they deserve any sympathy?

The choice, of course, is up to you. Herzog voices his point-of-view early on in the film, but makes the wise decision of exploring both sides of the story. As a result, Into the Abyss becomes an emotionally devastating work of fact that probably won’t let you leave the theater with a clear-cut opinion. But when you’re working with this subject matter, it shouldn’t be any other way.

– William Bitterman

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