Into the Abyss (2011)

And I thought Monster’s Ball was depressing.

This documentary examines the emotional aftermath of a huge triple murder in Texas, interviewing the two convicted killers (Michael Perry and Jason Burkett), as well as everybody that was either involved with this case, or knew the victims/killers.

The whole discussion about the death penalty is something that is very controversial, yet, is also very opinionated when it comes to certain situations. Some people believe that killers shouldn’t be allowed to live a life anymore, once they have already taken another. Others believe, that it doesn’t matter what that killer has done, he/she is still a person and deserves to live no matter what. This is a point that’s very interesting, one that I still don’t know which to side with, and also, one that’s probably more thought out than this film.

Werner Herzog is definitely a guy that seems fascinated in almost every single subject he touches on and the death penalty is no different. There are plenty of scenes where we get to see these heart-broken people, such as the killers, families of the dead, and a couple of other people that have to deal executions, talk about all of the problems they go through on a daily basis and just how they were/weren’t effected by these murders. Some of the interviews really do feel like they come straight from the heart and others, will take you by surprise by how weird they can get, but regardless, they take you by surprise by how far inside one person they can go sometimes and that’s all that counts. Notice how I said the word “some” in that last sentence.

As much as I think that Herzog definitely knows what he’s doing when it comes to documentaries, I feel like he inserts himself a bit too much and maybe loses track of things, such as is the case here. The documentary starts out with a priest talking about his experiences and thoughts about life and death and what it has done to him as a person, which is definitely the right way to start off this flick. Then it goes right to the convict on death row, Michael Perry, and is basically talking about the situation he’s in and how he feels about being closer and closer to hearing the bells toll. This made it seem like Herzog was actually on to something here and definitely made it seem like this was going to be a movie that was going to tackle the subject of capital punishment, with brute force and aggression, only the way that Herzog can. However, that’s not really what we get.

Where Herzog goes with this flick, definitely took me by surprise, but not in the good way mind you. Herzog then starts to show some of the police footage tapes of the crime scene with interviews from the cop that scoped it out, which is fine but then he starts to really go all-over-the-place. He starts to interview the families of both of the convicted killers/murdered, then goes on to a person that almost had a fight with one of the guys, and then goes on to a couple of other different people, such as a former guard for these executions. Some interviews are good, while as others, are pretty random but that’s not what bothered me the most about this flick.

What bothered me the most here was that Herzog just totally gets rid of these questions about the death penalty, which is one that plenty of people, would like to hear other views on too. Yet, most of the time is dedicated to people talking about how hands feel, how reading at such a young age made them feel (really freakin’ weird scene), and how this one chick got pregnant by her husband, without ever being able to touch him. Yes, it does go in some pretty strange places, which were very unnecessary, and it’s only like that because Herzog feels the need to put his own view-points in there and try to goof around a bit. The real question on everybody’s mind should have been; “Do these dudes deserve to live, or do they deserve to die?”. That should have been the million dollhair question that Herzog would beam at these people, but instead, he feels like he needs to push people to talk. A couple of scenes here show this, and it’s really annoying since these people’s viewpoints are interesting enough and when filming a documentary, especially a documentary on such a controversial subject, you should sort of let the stories speak for themselves. Then again, I didn’t film this so maybe it’s not my place to say how Herzog should, and should not film his documentaries.

The film wasn’t a total buzz-kill for me though, because I do think that some of these subjects do speak for themselves, even though they aren’t given that much time to show-up and speak their piece. These are people, that I hope I can never relate to, just because of how painfully sad their lives can be. All of the interviews with the daddy of Burkett, were very, very well-done, and that whole story about him having to spend Thanksgiving with his son behind bars, really added a lot more emotion to the flick. And it’s also pretty freakin’ scary to see somebody like Michael Perry basically just go up there and say that “he didn’t kill anybody”, when he is practically losing his life for that same act he is talking against. Problem is, the film touches on them a couple of times but never enough to give us the full picture here of what’s really going on in these dudes’ heads and you would think with a guy like Perry, who’s last interview could be right in front of your eyes, that we would see and hear a lot more from him. Sadly, it’s a Herzog show everybody, and that’s pretty much all we’re going to get.

Consensus: Into the Abyss definitely features moments that will shake you emotionally, but gets too bogged down by many other moments that are random and dedicated to other subjects, that aren’t as important or interesting as the main ones. Surprise to see a documentary that was pretty much as simple as they come, but I’m not really saying it’s a good thing. Thanks Herzog!



  1. I had mixed feelings about this one too. I thought it lacked focus, but with Herzog, I probably just assumed the focus was on one thing when it was really on another. Still, not a big fan of the film.

  2. I love your writing, but I do disagree about this one. I think that it’s better than you give it credit for. I am glad he let his opinions on the subject of capital punishment enter the film. I think this is a really interesting look at the effects of the crimes and the punishments on those people involved. Very powerful stuff.

  3. Going to have to disagree with you here, I thought it was a very powerful, even handed documentary. I do not remember all the interviews, but I feel interviews you feel were useless were useful as they explained why people turn to crime.

    Personally, I am against the death penalty, if humans can not be rehabilitated then here is no hope for us all.

  4. If you’re interested this was actually a part of a TV series and so there are a number of other chapters centered around other cases and people slated for Capital Punishment. Thanks to a film festival mix-up i’ve seen those other chapters but not this one; though ti sounds like they are approached very similairly.

  5. I found this to be a very powerful film, but again… not in the way I expected. I think Herzog’s instincts were good when he let his camera explore and linger on aspects of it’s subject that did not directly relate to the ISSUE of capital punishment. He explores the minutiae of human experience and behaviour and lets that speak for itself. He allows us to place our own frame around it. By revealing a variety of disparate experiences and perspectives, the film becomes about more than simply “should we kill people or not.” By trying to identify with these people who have committed a crime and/or are affected by it, we can gain some insight into who and what we are as a species and as a society.

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