If Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss is indeed an activist documentary—and I’m not wholly convinced it is—then it’s an activist documentary only the idiosyncratic Herzog could make. The director seemingly states his thesis early on in the film, as he tells death-row inmate Michael Perry that, while he doesn’t have to respect his past actions, he does respect Perry’s right to live. But from here, however, Herzog transforms his vision, focusing less on capital punishment, and more on the fragility of life itself. He’s more interested with not only the causes of death and crime, but by the actual people who are entangled in it all. The human aspect that Herzog so doggedly pursues is what places Into the Abyss among the most intense and heartbreaking works of filmmaking I’ve seen this year.
The film starts off by detailing the crimes committed by Perry and his onetime friend Jason Burkett’s (who is now serving a life sentence). Detailed through crime-scene video, police documents and interviews, Herzog goes through the steps of a triple murder committed by Perry and Burkett for nothing more than a Camaro. The senseless nature and absurdity of the crime is even more evidenced by the revelation that it’s a car they had for no more than a few days before getting into a shoot-out with police and being eventually apprehended.
But Herzog is a filmmaker before he’s a journalist. From what we’re shown, there’s no doubt that Herzog is certain that Perry and Burkett—despite their own claims to the contrary—committed these crimes. But guilt and innocence aren’t what concerns the director, since he only delves into the official record of these crimes. At the same time, he never denies these two imprisoned men their sides of the story, and the film is incredibly even-handed in this manner. Herzog has his ideas and opinions, but allows everyone else involved their own as well—including a woman who lost two family members in Perry and Burkett’s rampage, and who is obviously comforted by Perry’s execution. Her perspective goes against the whole point of the film, but after hearing her story after witnessing the horrific nature of Perry’s crimes, you can’t exactly blame her for having it.
This fairness is laced throughout the film. Every person—including Perry and Burkett—are treated with a certain dignity, since Herzog’s main concern is an overarching sense of humanity. He never makes excuses for these two alienated men who committed murder at the age of 19, though he does attempt to examine why they might’ve ended up in the place they are. Herzog looks briefly at the violent culture of poverty the two grew up immersed in, and a good bit of the film is spent interviewing Burkett’s father, who’s been in prison most of his life and fully blames himself for many of his son’s failings.
Into the Abyss, however, doesn’t solely focus on the crimes, but rather the people this atmosphere of death influences on a daily basis. A good example is a correction’s officer who has assisted in executing—by his estimate—more than 120 people before eventually being simply unable to handle the job any longer. The film is filled with gut-wrenching moments like these, and even with the occasional Herzogian digressions, it’s old Werner at his most tasteful and sincere. Herzog’s ability to allow the viewers to draw their own conclusions is what makes Into the Abyss one of the best documentaries of the year—assuming you can handle its heaviness. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material and some disturbing images.