Saturday, November 12, 2011

Into the Abyss (2011)

Into the Abyss
Dir. Werner Herzog

4 out of 5

In just the past decade of an amazingly prolific career, Werner Herzog has taken audiences to some of the least accessible places on the planet: the depths of Chauvet Cave, the ice pack of Antarctica, the mindspace of Nicolas Cage. So it's telling when Herzog chooses to title this film Into the Abyss, as it is primarily about the thin line between life and death in a culture that still affirms the value of some lives through the taking of others. Abyss centers on Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, two Texas men convicted of triple homicide in 2001, the gruesome decrescendo of what was initially nothing more than a botched car theft. One received a life sentence and the other was shipped to Death Row. Predictably, they disagree on most of the particulars of their case, from their roles in the crime to their sentencing.

Though Herzog states his opposition to capital punishment early on, the film is driven by his innate intellectual curiosity rather than a specific political agenda. He approaches the case from all possible angles, interviewing law enforcement officials and the victims' family members, as well as Burkett's addled, incarcerated father and a dissuaded former captain of an infamously productive "death house" in the Texas penal system. Together they compose the two sides of this story - one of simple facts and one of complex truth.

In a way, this reflects the dualistic personality of the film's director (though he never appears onscreen, Herzog has a constant presence as a prodding interrogator). His intimidating Teutonic countenance is quickly undercut by his disarming playfulness time and again, almost to the point of losing focus. Once he spots a loose thread, no matter how unimportant, Herzog just can't help but pull it. But his digressions into topics like a prison chaplain's encounters with wildlife on a golf course or the mysterious pregnancy of Burkett's legal advocate-turned-wife leaven an otherwise bleak and depressing tale. He seems to be pointing at some of the absurdities of living a life condemned by jury or by circumstance and reveling in the little miracles that do arise (such as an ex-con who obliquely knew Perry and Burkett overcoming his illiteracy). These are the times - and there are plenty of them, thank goodness - when Abyss unexpectedly taps the well of humanity adjacent to the ever-present, gaping maw of death.

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