Into The Abyss Review
It’s funny how an audience can colour your opinion of a movie. I first saw Into The Abyss at an early Q+A screening full of Herzog fan boys. One early moment features a typical ‘Herzog moment’ of a priest, generally talking about the sanctity of life and all that jazz, unexpectedly diverge on a tangent about how he likes to watch squirrels piddle around when he plays golf. It’s a cute moment, a sincere reveal masked by the innocuity of the reference, but people were guffawing with Nic Cage enthusiasm. Sure, it was a nice moment of humanity in what promised to be a murky film, but it felt like the laughter was over-zealous to the point of fawnery or more unsettlingly, mockery. I felt like a bit a sourpuss after that. Luckily the second screening featured no such joviality. Humbug!
There will always be debate over how to treat a sensitive subject like capital punishment, whether it is with jet-black deference or a more polemic presentation. Herzog has stated that despite their actions the subjects of his film are all people and to be treated as such. He speaks to his interviewees with respect and does not aim to promote false sentimentality. However, Herzog is a filmmaker well known for blurring fact and fiction in his documentaries, having often contrived scenes and characters in his previous work. This is no bad thing; Into The Abyss is a work that explores the strange and uneasy circumstances in which these people live so it fits that the presentation of the film seems to mirror the environment itself. Plenty of what the protagonists say feels like half-truths or even downright lies, so why shouldn’t the filmmakers use a little artistic license in their presentation. The danger of seeing a Herzog movie is that his inexhaustibly pleasing intonations can be worth the admission alone, but here he is definitely a supporting character, rather than the main event. Occasionally the interviews feel like they are pushing the respondees into monologues the filmmaker feels would be most fitting, which could be interpreted as gentle manipulation. But then by its very nature this is voyeurism at its most eloquent.
Witnessing the quality of life that these people seem to endure was at times akin to watching a sci-fi – like a state sanctioned District 9 or Herzogs very own Wild Blue Yonder. One guy, only tenuously related to the murder itself, has been illiterate for the most part of his life and claims to have endured being stabbed with a screwdriver from one side of his ribcage to the other. Didn’t even need a day off work, though that’s probably because he’s really a little green cranium alien protecting Orion’s Belt. There is a depressingly absurd moment when one of the victim’s family describes how her family have all died in an uncomfortably quasi -comic short succession, and the story of how Jason Burkett’s wife falls in love with him from outside the prison walls was fittingly reminiscent of the squirrels scene from The Sword in the Stone. Whether these people the victims of a deprived subculture or indications of a wider problem within Texas isn’t apparent, but it certainly is arresting to witness.
Subtitled ‘A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life’ Herzog examines both ends of the spectrum. Jason Burkett’s father, Delbert, has spent most of his life in jail and believes this has had a direct impact on Jason’s development. His and Michael Perrys actions eventually lead to 3 murders, one execution and a number of ruined lives. Out of it, strongly implied, one life is created – Burketts child produced by smuggling his mayo out of jail to his wife. She seems pretty happy about the situation, but it seems to me like this is just another fatherless child, at the mercy of an unforgiving environment. So the circle of life continues. It is clear that Herzog is against capital punishment, and the alternative view of life imprisonment is endorsed by one of the victims’ family. Situations like this raise the toughest of questions – Michael Perry’s life is extinguished, along with his influence on the world, while Burkett is incarcerated until he is 59 but still adding to society, whether that is deemed positive or not. Which is right? These are key questions in society that I found myself pondering on whilst the film played out, realising that I was dipping in and out of what was actually being said but guided by the tone nonetheless.
This is not a popcorn movie. Its stillness makes it feel like an extended crime scene and whilst there are moments of levity it is an unavoidably sombre piece. It has an uneasy charm, helped by the curious inspection of Herzog. If, like a dark knight once said, its what people do that define them, then we should be required to despise the monstrous nature of Perry and Burkett. However, one of the greatest strengths of Into The Abyss is inspiring empathy and perhaps the path to understanding with these people, which is achieves on the most part. It would have been good to go further into what made these events occur, but the bafflement displayed by police, victims and Herzog himself add another layer to a sorry tale.
Having seen it twice, my overall experience was a positive one. The film drags a touch in the middle after a promising opening, and some interviewees are more interesting than others, but as a catalyst for an internal discussion of the death penalty, and the pros and cons of moving to Texas, its highly effective.