Friday, 23 December, 2011

Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life

Director: Werner Herzog

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Reviewed by Delme Stephenson

Werner Herzog had to defend 'Into the Abyss' at the Toronto International film Festival. It had garnered a reputation as a documentary with a political agenda, seemingly criticising the use of the death penalty in the United States. Werner disagreed stating in an interview, "This is not an issue film; it's not an activist film against capital punishment", and "yes, it has an issue, but it's not the main purpose of the film". The distribution rights were bought by Sundance Selects before its premiere, with the film being rushed for a limited November theatrical release in North America as the debates over capital punishment became an issue of political contention. Although ‘Into the Abyss’ is constructed into chapters, with a prologue and epilogue, it is actually quite a thoughtful and well-intentioned documentary feature. Herzog clearly has his beliefs, but this is a film greater than the issue of capital punishment. It’s an examination of human nature, the absurd and surreal, the cycle of life. It’s quintessential Herzog.     

The documentary focuses on Michael Perry and Jason Burkett who were convicted of a triple homicide in the town of Conroe in the American state of Texas. Perry was sentenced to death by lethal injection and Burkett life imprisonment. Herzog interviews the two men ten years after their heinous crime. Perry’s interviews were carried out in July 2010, eight days before his execution by lethal injection. Guided by Herzog as a director and interviewer - oft heard, but never seen - the crime is examined from a number of perspectives, both personal and visual. Interviews are conducted with law officials, relatives of the victims and associates of Perry and Burkett.  

Herzog takes us on a journey that is not simply structured around a narrative of murder and retribution, or ‘A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life’, but populates his feature with people who have lived, lost and loved. It is through them that we get a sense of a truly desperate scenario that is both brutally savage and yet darkly surreal. None of this is lost on the viewer as Herzog clearly steers his interviewees into subject matters that are wonderfully off-centre. As a subject, the nature of time in prison or in life is often brought up by Herzog and yet his interviewees reflect on moments that are both bizarre and tragic. Perry tells us that he became lawless out of rebellion; his story of running away from summer camp is punctured by a memorable recollection of being attacked by wild monkeys in rural Texas. While the physically imposing Burkett - quite the opposite of the youthful and energetic Perry – mentions an indefinable third man whom he believed to be in the car he shared with Perry before being cornered in a life and death shootout with the Police. 

Surrealism and tragedy frequently embrace each other as people are introduced and stories revealed. Burkett’s father who is also in jail for life tells us of his regrets. He believes that as an absentee father he is mostly to blame for his son’s actions and wishes he was part of his children’s lives. Yet he is pained and embarrassed at being reunited with two of his sons over Christmas dinner in prison, all three of them shackled and chained. The stories continue. A sister and daughter of two of the victims explains at one point how she lost several family members over a very short period of time, including the family dog. While an acquaintance of Burkett explains how he was fatally stabbed yet had thirty minutes to get into work and so avoided going to hospital.         

Herzog manages to capture the essence of his many interviewees and their absorbing, diverting tales because the documentary format allows him to capture the reality of a situation regardless of its construction. Truth exists within their facial expressions, tone of voice and mannerisms. Yet Herzog’s direction and editing also has to be commended. Early on during the film Herzog outwardly states that he respects Perry as a man for fighting for his human rights. This is done even with the inclusion of the actual police footage of the crime which is shown uninterrupted at some length. No bodies are shown, just the aftermath. It is a terribly gruesome affair and truly horrific because, we, the viewer comprehend that the blood splatter on the wall, the discarded trainer and bullet holes prove how violent and graphic the murders were. Herzog also shoots a POV sequence that is both simple and cunningly effective. He films the amount of actual time it would take a prisoner that has been sentenced to death from their holding cell to the gurney, where they are promptly strapped down and injected. Herzog also combines this with a shot of an empty gurney from a spectator window. The simplicity of the sequence is startlingly chilling because the process of death is presented as short, sharp and clinical. No physical presence is presented before the camera and yet we can imagine the horror. However if any filmed scene captures the message of Herzog’s piece it is of the director being shown the red sports car at the centre of the crime in a locked compound. It is explained by a police officer that a tree has grown out of the ground and through the bottom of the car and is now unmovable. It is both an incredibly ironic and deeply saddening metaphor.               

'Into the Abyss' is ultimately an absorbing and startling look at life and death in an extraordinary situation. It’s subtly and presented, despite the subject matter. We sympathise and understand the pain of all the affected parties. Yet although it is clear that Herzog isn't impartial, he doesn’t believe in capital punishment from the outset and places value on human life, it is undoubtedly a good thing in this context, because it allows room for debate and discussion. Perry and Burkett committed a horrendous and senseless crime, and yet it is clear that neither of the men were given much of a chance in life, in the town of Conroe or by the state of Texas. Herzog is sensitive to the situation and allows for a discussion on a topic that is not just relevant in the States, but in countries where the death penalty has been abolished and where it has not. Regardless this is a masterfully and engaging documentary that asks more from you as a viewer than you’d expect, it transcends the issue of capital punishment becoming something much more. One word: Illuminating.

‘Into the Abyss' is released in the UK on the 23rd of March 2012.