In his fascinating exploration of a triple homicide case in Conroe, Texas, master filmmaker Werner Herzog (Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Grizzly Man) probes the human psyche to explore why people kill and why a state kills. Through intimate conversations with those involved, including 28-year-old death row inmate Michael Perry (scheduled to die within eight days of appearing on-screen), Herzog achieves what he describes as a gaze into the abyss of the human soul. Herzog s inquiries also extend to the families of the victims and perpetrators as well as a state executioner and pastor who ve been with death row prisoners as they ve taken their final breaths. As he s so often done before, Herzog s investigation unveils layers of humanity, making an enlightening trip out of ominous territory.
Not counting the philosophical chapter headings and artful score, Into the Abyss registers as Werner Herzog's most conventional documentary to date. In this case, the director never shows his face, though his questions appear on the soundtrack, much as in the films of Errol Morris. Not that Herzog feigns objectivity. In conversation with condemned murderer Michael Perry, he states, “I think human beings should not be executed." In 2001, Perry and Jason Burkett led police on a high-speed chase through Conroe, TX in the wake of a triple homicide. Eighteen-year-old Perry ended up on death row, while Burkett got life in prison. Both men proclaim their innocence, though DNA evidence makes their participation clear (Herzog integrates crime scene footage that illustrates the brutality of the killings). Worse yet, their lust for a red Camaro moved them to murder the mother, her teenaged son, and the son's friend. Herzog interviews two surviving relatives, a friend of one prisoner, and the wife and incarcerated father of the other. In a way, the film plays like a sequel to Steve James's At the Death House Door, which featured a death row chaplain who came to regret the system in which he participated. Herzog interviews another minister, who laments, "You can't stop the process, but I wish I could." Similarly, the filmmaker makes no attempt to exonerate his subjects, but rather to question the benefits of capitol punishment, particularly when it’s no match for the cycle of violence from which Perry and Burkett sprang. --Kathleen C. Fennessy