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Into the Abyss
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by Jay Seaver

"Crime, punishment, and the pointlessness of it all."
4 stars

Werner Herzog is enjoying a late-career burst of productivity that would make many younger filmmakers jealous, and he's managed to do so in part by switching between fiction and documentary, tackling whichever new subject piques his interest, often at the ends of the world or the edge of madness. "Into the Abyss" is almost conventional by his standards - the triple homicide and later incarceration of the killers it covers is sadly common - but like many documentaries, it's as much about how the filmmaker looks at the subject as it is the death penalty itself.

The crime is ugly, a pair of teenagers breaking into nurse Sandra Stotler's house looking to steal a car, murdering her, her son James, and his friend Jeremy Richardson. The police would catch the two in about a week, with Jason Burkett receiving a life sentence while Michael Perry is sentenced to death. Ten years later, in 2010, Herzog talks with them on the eve of Perry's execution, also visiting the crime scenes and meeting with their families and those of the victims, trying to get some context for what seem like two monstrous acts - the second being Perry's upcoming execution.

Herzog is quite clear on that - he believes capital punishment to be an abhorrent practice and says so in no uncertain terms. There's a school of thought that considers this bad journalism, looking to hold a writer or documentary filmmaker to an impossible standard of impartiality, but what Herzog does is probably more effective as well as more honest; he lets the audience know his opinion early on so that we can see where his questions are coming from. He also leaves in the exchanges that maybe didn't give him the answers he wanted, and those are interesting moments; the audience sees Herzog as a filmmaker trying to make his point but also documenting what the actual situation is.

That's just one way in which Herzog demonstrates himself to be a good host and interviewer. He is, as always, broadly curious, willing to talk to a broad range of people and allowing their words to bring him to the next question. Certainly, some of what comes across as interesting give and take is likely canny editing, but it's still impressive to see him pick up on someone mentioning squirrels on the golf course and follow that, of all things, to a very emotional moment. He speaks respectfully to all involved, injecting his own views, but in a way that draws his subjects out rather than putting them on the defensive.

The dicussions themselves are interesting, too. The level of poverty and petty criminality is at times jarring for a middle-class audience - Herzog seems legitimately thrown to find out that the brother of one victim only learned to read while in prison in his twenties. We see people who have had their entire family ripped away in ways that fiction writers would tone down because they just seem absurdly tragic and unbelievable and people who work(ed) in the process of execution who seem shaken by what they've been a part of. A number of interviews take place through glass in prison visiting rooms, and though the environment is similar, they make for fascinating contrasts - Perry seems to smile way too much for someone facing imminent execution while Burkett seems self-aware if not quite contrite, and Herzog nudges us to compare our reactions to the pair. A comment from Burkett leads to interviewing his father, and both an explicit and implied indictment of how broken the system is.

"Into the Abyss" doesn't rail about the death penalty the way one might expect, and doesn't end with an impassioned plea. It maybe doesn't make as sharp a point as the filmmakers may have intended. But that's somewhat fitting in a way, as the destructive pointlessness of it all is one of Herzog's recurring themes here.

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originally posted: 11/11/11 05:04:21
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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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  11-Nov-2011 (PG-13)
  DVD: 10-Apr-2012


  DVD: 10-Apr-2012

Directed by
  Werner Herzog

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