Movie Review – Into the Abyss (2011)

Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life, 2011.

Written and Directed by Werner Herzog.


Werner Herzog interviews various people from a small town in Texas involved in a triple homicide. The repercussions of the murders itself are explored from different points of view.

Werner Herzog’s latest documentary is a tale of life and death. With that in mind just before viewing, I was pleasantly relieved. Within the winding stories following the perpetrators and victims of a triple homicide, there was a lot of humour to be found. That’s probably a bad way to put it, but it’s the only way I can think of.

Fortunately, the humour doesn’t come from laughing at victims of murder. Along with the stories of the crime itself, Herzog also unveils funny anecdotes about the crime itself and from around the town. From the man going to work with a screwdriver embedded in his ribs to the starkly dark discussion of why you need to be physically fit to be executed, Herzog avoids making the film too depressing by infusing these bits of humour throughout.

The humorous portions help the perfectly partial way Herzog looks at everyone’s point of view. While it’s quite easy to hate the murderers, you’re still taken in. The convicts, Michael Perry (awaiting execution) and Jason Burkett (life sentence), each slowly tell their stories and while you probably won’t forgive them for murdering three people over a car, you understand why they might be how they are.

As Herzog is partial about everyone, you’re free to make up your own minds about people. Which is strange, as the person I found most annoying, worse than the killers, was someone I can only describe as Burkett’s rainbow wife. Once you hear her story, you’ll understand.

The fact that life itself is made up of all these different viewpoints, and everyone trying to have their say, doesn’t play well next to one of the post-production decisions made. It’s present in the first twenty or so minutes, so at least not the whole narrative, but it displayed such a difference in tone that it needs mentioning. Over the top of images taken from police video cameras of the crime scene, a dirge of music plays. That’s the only way I can describe it.

Over the horrific images left in real life, on a real floor in a real person’s house, where real blood lies, there is a dirge of quasi-emotional noise that I’m guessing is supposed to inspire a tinge of sadness or the hollow ‘How could a human being do this to another person?’ type of feeling. Instead it detracts. The images spoke enough for themselves, with the odd interjection of audio from the police officer involved in the investigation bringing in the cold, hard facts of how these three people died. It just seemed a little over the top and wholly needless.

Now while I may have some strong negative feelings towards that aspect of the film, it isn’t quite enough to destroy the connection I had with the rest. The flow of the stories, which I didn’t quite expect, helps to make things not too intense. The narrative played out is split into chapters. There’s a prologue that sets up what’s in store, featuring an interview with a priest, which is fitting considering he’s someone who works closely with the ideas of life and death. An interview late on with the captain of the Death House nicely bookends with the priest interview. It also shows how some people who at first polarize each other actually appear to have the same opinions in the end.

The crime is detailed in the first chapter, and is less about the execution and the people involved. It works as an introduction to everyone involved, with a police officer spelling out the who’s, what’s, where’s and how’s of it. It’s up to the other chapters, and the other interviewees therein, to spell out the why’s. And after that, the simple introduction of the father of Burkett gives the story a new spin, a new possible reason for why things are the way they are.

This could be what Herzog’s film is really about. It’s not about how the family reacts, how the perpetrators were caught or even the murders themselves. It’s more of an explanation, using the town itself and not just the people in it, of why people are sometimes inclined to the more extreme ends of life. That’s what makes this documentary great, because it’s about the details of life, as opposed to sensationalizing broadly painted characters. Herzog doesn’t force a cliché or generalized narrative onto the people involved, he coaxes answers out of people and knows when to sit back and let the story tell itself.

Flickering Myth Rating: Film **** / Movie **

Matt Smith

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