Moral dilemma of death penalty
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Nov 11, 2011
The idea of Werner Herzog - the great chronicler of the irrational in such masterpieces as "Aguirre, the Wrath of God," "Fitzcarraldo" and "Grizzly Man" - plunging into the American system of capital punishment seems ripe with possibility. Who better than Herzog to explore the deepest moral questions of a society suffused in violence that seeks to punish murder by murdering more?
That Herzog is so uniquely suited to the subject matter may account for why "Into the Abyss" is such a profound disappointment - especially on the heels of the masterful death-row drama "Incendiary" and 2008's "At the Death House Door."
A shapeless collection of encounters with Texas prison inmates and their victims, what could have been a well-aimed examination of the most troubling contradictions of capital punishment instead becomes a maudlin, unrestrained wallow.
"Into the Abyss" revolves around the case of Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, who were convicted of a triple homicide in Conroe, Tex., with Perry receiving a death sentence and Burkett sentenced to life in prison. Interviewing Perry just eight days before his execution in 2010, Herzog doesn't dwell on Perry's insistence that he wasn't responsible for the heinous crime, instead leading the 28-year-old man to share his feelings about his impending mortality.
Similarly, Herzog urges his other subjects - Burkett, the crime victims' sister and brother, Burkett's incarcerated father and various Conroe friends and neighbors - to share their memories, impressions and emotions as they consider the people who were slain and the two young men accused of senselessly taking their lives.
In addition to these interviews - often accompanied by photographs and tears that Herzog eagerly coaxes out of his subjects - "Into the Abyss" uses grisly crime-scene videotape to drive home the viciousness of the crime. If those images help viewers understand why the survivors would want to see Perry executed, Herzog never delves deeply into the paradox of Burkett getting only a life sentence. When he gets around to the woman Burkett married while he was incarcerated - whose sentimental chatter about rainbows Herzog indulges with patience that borders on exploitation - "Into the Abyss" enters an abyss of its own, where it gets lost in a vortex of swirling psychobabble and self-justifying speeches.
The trap Herzog falls into is seeing the death penalty in terms of retribution rather than criminal justice. But it's precisely when execution is addressed as a state function that "Into the Abyss" becomes most compelling, when Herzog interviews the professionals who bear the spiritual and psychological burden of carrying out the law. Reportedly, Herzog is planning more death penalty-related documentaries; with luck, he'll exhibit more discipline and focus the next time around.
Contains mature thematic material and some disturbing images.