Matters of Life and Death
You either love Werner Herzog or you don’t. You either trust that his unique outlook will result in a fascinating film, whatever its subject, or you give him a miss. That said: Don’t give this one a miss, even if you don’t like Herzog (or aren’t sure about him).
For here is the mystery and wonder of Herzog: this is simultaneously his least Herzog-y film (in that he does not appear on camera and omits his own usual weirdly perceptive narration, limiting himself to a few mostly straightforward questions asked of those who are on camera) and also the most profound expression of Herzog-ness yet (in that it’s hard to imagine anyone else taking quite his tack). Into the Abyss ends up as a profound examination of the death penalty in the United States, and not only because Herzog can ask a prison chaplain who officiates at executions both “Why does God allow capital punishment?” and “Please describe an encounter with a squirrel” and get passionate and provocative answers to both questions (as probably only Herzog could). But because even as an avowed opponent to capital punishment — he says that outright here — he does not stack the deck in his own favor.
Herzog (Cave of Forgotten Dreams) presents, instead, probably the best argument one could present in favor of the death penalty. There is absolutely no question whatsoever that Michael Perry, whom Herzog interviewed just days before his execution in 2010, was guilty of the horrendous crimes for which he was convicted: the brutal murders of three people in a small Texas town over an automobile he wanted to take a joyride in. (Opponents of the death penalty, of which I am one, point to the uncertainty that often accompanies guilty verdicts in capital cases.) Perry shows no remorse whatsoever on camera here. Perry is white (blacks are disproportionately represented on death row). Even the key anti-capital-punishment argument that executing violent criminals brings no comfort to victims of their crimes is subverted here: the sister and daughter of two of Perry’s victims says she felt a sense of relief at witnessing his execution. There’s no getting around the fact that Perry’s coperpetrator, Jason Burkett, about whom there is also no question of innocence, got only a “life” sentence, which in fact will be only 15 years. Is that a fair sentence for a convicted multiple murderer?
Into the Abyss is, then, a true litmus test of one’s perspective on capital punishment. Can you still oppose it in this case? Is capital punishment about the problems of its frequent failings, or is it simply wrong in every case, no matter the depravity and apparent inhumanity and the unquestionable guilt of those who, under the law, have unequivocally earned execution?
All along, Herzog has been teasing out the odd little corners of life and death and strangeness in this terrible tale, from the police impound lot, where the car Perry’s crime was all about is literally rotting away, to the twisted family stories of both the victims and the murders. But it comes down to your own approach to life and death, and how much you’ve considered these matters yourself.
(Oh, and for the record: I’m still anti-death penalty.)
viewed during the 55th BFI London Film Festival