Werner Herzog’s Death Row Doc Goes ‘Into The Abyss’

My colleague Alex Seitz-Wald spent his vacation at the Telluride Film Festival in Telluride, Colorado. He’s been kind enough to file some dispatches — this review will be the first of several. -Alyssa

In a way, Into the Abyss, Werner Herzog’s new documentary about Death Row, is perfectly titled. It takes you down into a dark world without any clear lightness, redemption or purpose. Indeed, Herzog himself said before its premier here Friday that many of his films could be bear the title. But in trying to navigate such a wide berth around pounding the viewer over the head with a message about a subject that lends itself to Michael Moore-style didacticism, the film loses sight of the message entirely and ultimately says almost nothing.

The formula for semi-political documentaries dealing with emotionally difficult themes is pretty well established by now — devastate the audience with the severity and urgency of the problem, then give them just a little glimmer of hope at the end so they walk out of the theater wanting to take action, instead of just throwing their hands up and slouching towards the living room. The fantastic Bitter Seeds, a narrative doc about an epidemic of farmer suicides in India and the American biotech company behind it, which also premiered here, did this brilliantly by having the audience identify with the main character’s personal achievements, and setting those events against the larger public crisis.

But Into the Abyss leaves viewers without away forward, ending with the execution of its main character and no hope for reform of the cruel and absurd system the film is supposedly about. One could chalk this up to Herzog being Herzog, refusing to adhere to formula and striking out on his own, but the final act of the five act film is literally called “A glimmer of hope.”

Herzog makes his political views clear in the first five minutes of the film, when he casually tells the death row inmate at the center of the story, “I don’t think it’s right to kill people for any reason.” And clearly, some notion of justice must have attracted Herzog to the subject matter. But beyond that remark, and few other fleeting moments, the film has almost nothing to do with capital punishment. There are no title card statistics, no talking head experts, no context.

Even if we assume Herzog wasn’t really intending to make a film about capital punishment, but rather wanted to tell the story of a death row inmate, he chose an unremarkable and uncompelling one.

The film focuses on Michael Perry, a boyish drug addict turned prison-Christian, who was sentenced to death for 2001 triple murder in Conroe, Texas, and his accomplice, Jason Burkett, whose life was spared by a life sentence. The story simply is not compelling or remarkable. The evidence that convicted Perry and Burkett — including Perry’s DNA on a cigarette butt—seems convincing. And Herzog doesn’t even attempt to cast doubt on the validity of their convictions, letting a Sheriff’s deputy tell the entire story of the murder and offering no counter evidence or potential flaws with the state’s case. In fact, the movie completely ignores Perry’s trial.

There is not great miscarriage of justice here, despite some lingering questions Herzog doesn’t explore, and while it may be wrong execute people under any circumstance, this particular circumstance isn’t going to arouse anyone’s sense of outrage. Texas has executed 117 people in the last five years alone and this is the one Herzog chose to point his (considerably powerful) lens at? There are far too many heart-wrenching cases of death row inmates wrongly convicted that Herzog could have focused on. From Cameron Todd Willingham to Corey May, Herzog really should have read some of Radly Balko’s before selecting a case. And the selection of a white inmate like Perry allows for no space to explore racial disparities on death row.

Still, there are some unusually poignant moments. One is the story of a former death house captain who personally participated in the execution of over a 100 inmates only to have a nervous breakdown, quit his job, sacrifice pension, and become a committed opponent of the death penalty. The other is an moment when Herzog asks a death row priest to “tell me about an interaction with a squirrel” and gets a powerful and tearful allegory of life, death, and choice in return. But both these moments come at the very end and very beginning of the film, respectively. It almost feels like Herzong went in to make a film about capital punishment, got distracted by the story of Perry, then hastily realized towards the end that this was supposed to be about something bigger than one crime.

The film does has a certain power to it. But it leaves the viewer more with a sense of awful despair in the face of hopeless absurdity than righteous indignation.