Do you agree with capital punishment? It’s a question that rears its head every so often, generally after some tragic event too horrible for us to truly comprehend. Phrases like ’how could someone do something like that’ and words like ’animal’ and ’monster’ tend to follow. But the message that struck me hardest in Werner Herzog’s latest documentary ’Into The Abyss’ is that the perpetrators of these horrendous crimes are no less human than you or I.
We use these words to separate ourselves from them, a result of our fear that had our lives been different… different town, different upbringing, different life experiences… we too could have arrived at where they are now. As much as we would like to believe it, nobody is born bad and we all have the potential to become so.
Throughout the film, Herzog interviews a number of people surrounding a 2001 triple homicide including, the convicted, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett. Although his own voice is occasionally heard, that of the interviewees comes across as free and organic, un-enhanced or over emphasised by the powers of post-production.
Perhaps for this same reason, the film comes across as quite low budget, lacking the seamlessness or gloss that more mainstream documentaries have these days. Yet somehow this rawness is appropriate to the nature of the themes… murder, blame, death, and most importantly the rawness of life.
As Herzog says himself, the film is about life just as much as it about death, and his respect for both is evident. There is a distinct lack of shock-factor scenes that you almost expect to see from a film about death row. It would be so easy to insert gasp-inducing dramatic moments and yet Werner chooses to preserve the dignity of all involved. That said, the sense of tragedy and loss is ever-present.
Herzog avoids getting too far in to the nitty-gritty of Perry and Burkett’s individual level of involvement in the crimes, each blaming the other. In doing this the audience is encouraged to look at the bigger picture, the ‘characters’ could represent any victim, any killer, any case. It’s the principal of ending a life under any circumstance that is questioned, not whether it is acceptable, excusable or deserved in regards to this specific case.
’Into The Abyss’ has a stillness about it. No long pause is ever broken, nor is inserted for dramatic effect. There is a strong sense of unadulterated, bare faced ‘truth’ and consequently you leave feeling that you’ve made up your own mind in response to that initial question, or even perhaps not. What you don’t feel however, is that Werner made up his, and then spent the past 107 minutes trying to convince you of it.
‘Into The Abyss’ is released in the UK on the 30th March 2012.
Reviewed by Francesca Bassenger.