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Into the Abyss
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Encounters at the End of the Line"
5 stars

Although Werner Herzog has dabbled in documentaries throughout his long and illustrious career as one of the most audacious and challenging filmmakers working today, he has turned to them more and more frequently in the last decade or so and the results have made for some of the most unforgettable cinematic experiences of our time. Earlier this year, for example, he gave us "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," a spellbinding work in which he trekked to a remote and recently uncovered cavern system in France with 3D cameras in order to present the oldest known cave paintings in a film that served as a virtual cinematic time machine. Coming out of the film completely bowled over by the images he presented, I privately assumed that I would not see a more fascinating documentary for the rest of the year. Well, as it turns out, one makes assumptions about Herzog, a man whose quest to provide viewers with stories and sights that they have never seen before have led him from the lip of an active volcano to the South Pole to multiple collaborations with Klaus Kinski, at their own peril because he now has a new documentary out, the death penalty examination "Into the Abyss," and it is even more powerful and eye-opening than that earlier film. In fact, it is one of the great works in a career that is certainly not hurting for such things and one of the most important and unforgettable films of the year.

This time around, Herzog ventures to the prison in Huntsville, Texas and introduces us to two young men, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, who decided one night to break into the house of a acquaintance and steal his red Camaro, a stupid and impulsive crime that quickly spiraled out of control and resulted in three people being murdered in the course of grabbing a car that they only managed to possess for a few hours before getting arrested. Each insisted during their trials that the other one was primarily responsible for the killings but both were found guilty. However, while Perry was sentenced to death, Burkett got off comparatively easy with a mere 40-year sentence. Through interviews with the two killers, their families, the families of their victims, the criminal investigators and the people charged with carrying out Perry's execution, Herzog introduces viewers to a fascinating array of characters and paints an indelible portrait of how the lives of most of them were irrevocably changed forever for no good or coherent reason at all.


Some people may go into "Into the Abyss" assuming that it will be something along the lines of "The Thin Blue Line," the amazing 1988 Errol Morris documentary that investigated the pleas of innocence of another prisoner slated for execution in Texas and uncovered new evidence that led to his exoneration, but that is not what Herzog has presented us with here. For one thing, there is no real doubt that the two prisoners were indeed guilty of their crimes. For another, Herzog makes it clear that while he is adamantly opposed to the death penalty under any circumstances, he is not one to be lulled into a sense of misguided sympathy as a result--when he meets Perry for the first time, a mere eight days before his scheduled execution, he cooly informs him that while he feels for him in the sense that he doesn't believe he should be executed, "It does not mean that I have to like you." Instead, Herzog is trying to do something different with this story by asking a far more complex and difficult question. Which is more preferable--a situation in which one person takes the life of another as the result of a stupid chain of circumstances that ends with someone dead for no good or coherent reason at all or a situation in which one person takes the life of another as the result of a meticulously conceived and executed plan designed to bring about some form of justice? The correct answer, of course, is that neither one is acceptable in a civilized society because no one has the right to take the life of another person under any circumstance.

Using a more subdued approach than in many of his previous documentaries that finds him staying behind the camera for virtually the entire film and asking question that are for the most part somber reasonable, Herzog pursues this idea through a series of interviews that find his subjects opening up in ways that neither he nor they could have possibly intended when they started. We meet a prison chaplain who starts offering up the standard-issue homilies and then, after being prompted by Herzog to describe an encounter he once had with a squirrel, casts asides the hollow pieties in order to speak truthfully and movingly from the heart. We meet the head of the prison guards who oversaw more than 100 executions before finally walking away from the job because he was finally convinced that the death penalty was wrong. We meet Melyssa Thompson-Burkett, who met James Burkett in prison while working on his legal case and wound up marrying him and becoming pregnant with his child, though she is understandably coy about the details regarding the latter. In the most wrenching sequence, we meet Burkett's father, himself a convict whose failings as a father finally came through to him on the day when he, James and his other incarcerated son shared lunch together behind prison walls. In perhaps the only real father-son act of his entire life, he made an impassioned plea on his son's behalf during the sentencing phase of James' trial and it is believed that his words carried enough influence on a couple of jurors to keep them from voting for death. We even get to see what happened to the car that inspired so much pain and anguish in so many lives and without wreaking the reveal, I will state that the sight of it is alternately enraging, heartbreaking and weirdly touching all at once.

"Into the Abyss" is a film that tackles a difficult and complex subject that many people have passionate feelings about and as a result, it is one that is likely to raise the hackles of viewers on both sides of the question even before they actually see it. Those in favor of the death penalty will condemn it because of its obvious stance against it while those against the death penalty may wonder why Herzog didn't choose to make his point about his opposition by focusing on either the perception of racial bias in terms of those being sentenced to die, the let-em-fry attitude that has been tacitly endorsed in Texas by Governors Bush and Perry via the sheer numbers of executions or by looking at a case in which there was some doubt about the guilt of the condemned prisoner. These might have made for intriguing films as well but with "Into the Abyss," Herzog gives us something far riskier and far more rewarding in the long run--a film that will make anyone who sees it actually sit and contemplate their position at length, regardless of their current stance on the subject

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=22823&reviewer=389
originally posted: 11/11/11 08:34:10
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 47th Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 47th Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Telluride Film Festival For more in the 2011 Telluride Film Festival series, click here.

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USA
  11-Nov-2011 (PG-13)
  DVD: 10-Apr-2012

UK
  N/A

Australia
  11-Nov-2011
  DVD: 10-Apr-2012


Directed by
  Werner Herzog

Written by
  (documentary)

Cast
  (documentary)



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