Whatever your views on the moral legitimacy of the death penalty, watching convicted prisoners waiting to die holds a horrific fascination. It’s the nightmarish, other-worldly quality of it. Everyone has to die, but only on death row must you confront your own mortality so forcibly. Juxtapose this with details of inmates’ crimes, and the stories of their victim’s relatives, and you have a story that not only forces you to examine your own ethical convictions, but also to wonder at how appallingly sad it all is.
Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss tells the story of Jason Burkett and Michael Perry, two young men convicted of killing three people in Texas in 2001. Burkett is serving a life sentence (he’ll be due for parole when he’s 59, which he probably won’t get) whilst Perry received the death sentence. Five lives lost, apparently for the sake of stealing a car. Yet whilst Herzog interviews both men, filming Perry just 8 days before he is due to be executed, he eschews what would seem to be the most obvious questions. It seems, indeed, that this film is concerned less with whether Perry and Burkett are guilty, and if so what they feel about their crimes, than to look at the situation more broadly. It’s laudably conceived, sketching something of both men’s lives, but also the lives of the relatives of the people they killed, as well as those involved in the execution process.
But although compelling throughout – as the sub-title suggests, this is literally a story of life and death – the lack of focus makes the film seem strangely incomplete. We learn only briefly, for example, that Perry still denies his guilt, whilst the two men’s differing fates are never considered. Indeed, Herzog interviews Burkett’s father, himself serving a life sentence, but in contrast we learn little about Perry’s background. And whilst the film drips with tragedy, supplemented by the eerie quality of Herzog’s heavily accented English, it seems odd not to at least acknowledge these issues.
This could, of course, be Herzog’s intention. Whilst it’s impossible to ignore the intensity of the stories that unfold, the film retains almost an impassionate distance. Herzog holds up a window to the situation, and the events that led up to them, but allows the narrative to reveal itself. And that’s why it feels slightly haphazard, almost out of kilter with the film you are expecting. Herzog reveals that he is against the death penalty very early on, but the film refuses to make moral judgements. And considering the subject matter, the tone is emotionally restrained. Herzog makes you aware, too, of the film-making process. You hear many of his questions, which seem almost childishly unpretentious, whilst the slightly amateurish quality is underlined when he provides the murder victims’ relatives with photos of their loved ones.
Werner Herzog always makes unsettling films, many of which stay with you long after they’ve ended. Into the Abyss is no different. It may feel somewhat disjointed in places, unsatisfying in others, but if Herzog wanted to show the tragedy of lives thoughtlessly thrown away and the pain that lives on, then he definitely succeeds.