Plenty of documentaries, most notably The Thin Blue Line and Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills, have implicitly argued against the death penalty by asserting the innocence of someone on death row. Werner Herzog’s Into The Abyss isn’t one of them. While Herzog does give the convicted perpetrators of a 10-year-old triple homicide in Texas an opportunity to share their (conflicting) stories and plead innocent, the case is more endemic than special, just another execution in a state where prison death houses are more like abattoirs. Herzog’s goal isn’t to convince an appeals board to reopen the case—if it is, he’s failed utterly—but to understand the death penalty from every angle, satisfying another curiosity in a career compelled by them.
Herzog is against capital punishment. He makes that explicit upfront in Into The Abyss, and he questions the necessity of it whenever the occasion arises. Yet he listens sympathetically to everyone he interviews—victims, perpetrators, townspeople, and those who work in the death house. In October 2001 in Conroe, Texas, a smallish town north of Houston, investigators say a 50-year-old nurse, her teenage son, and his best friend were killed in a botched robbery attempt by Michael Perry and his friend Jason Burkett. Perry shot the nurse, who was standing in the way of a Chevy Camaro convertible in the garage, and Perry and Burkett hunted down the other two in the woods nearby. A week later, Perry and Burkett were arrested after a shootout with police, with the former ultimately handed the death penalty.
Beginning with an odd but moving interview with a chaplain who accompanies inmates on the gurney, Into The Abyss collects testimony from a range of people, including the victims’ family members, who hold up pictures of their lost loved ones; the two young convicts, whose stories are misaligned; Burkett’s incarcerated father, who laments his son’s life heading down a similar path to his own; and some of the Conroe locals who know those involved. But Herzog gets his most devastating interview from a former death-house team whose pro-capital-punishment zeal withered away after they escorted dozens of men (and the first woman) to their deaths. Herzog didn’t camp out for long in Conroe—and it shows—but his frankness and gentle inquiry gets his subjects talking, and his film powerfully suggests that violent death of any kind, whether personal or state-mandated, transforms everyone in its vicinity.