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Review - Into the Abyss

19 May 2012
Werner Herzog takes a gander at death row
A conversation between filmmaker Werner Herzog and death row inmate Michael Perry starts a journey that follows the investigation into the triple homicide that lead to his arrest, as well as focussing on the impact they had on other people in the community.
Initially most famous for his fiction films, director Werner Herzog has, in recent years, moved more and more into the arena of documentary filmmaking, with often stunning results. Perhaps it’s also a sign of the increased willingness of the public at large to engage with documentary in the wake of mainstream successes like Supersize Me and Michael Moore’s polemics, but Herzog’s titles like Grizzly Man and last year’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams have captured the attention of audiences everywhere.
Now, the filmmaker is back with a much more sobering tale. Given unprecedented access, he heads deep into the prison system to question two lifers and a man on death row, in this case a mere eight days before he is sentenced to die. Not content with that, he also traces the hideous and unecesary crime which lead to the incarceration of two young men and talks to the bereaved family members and friends.Herzog has built up a particularly useful persona behind the camera for his documentaries. His unnaturally clear disembodied voice (which I suspect is often re-recorded) stumbles out streams of often odd and rambling questions, further blurred by his strong accent. But there’s a sharp focus to the direction of the questioning, a razor sharp mind and agenda behind his seeming affability and quirkiness – there’s even a strong possibility that he purposefully complicates the questions to force his subjects to contribute more.
Add in a perfect sense of when to stretch a silence and subject matter that’s guaranteed to wring emotion from the interviewees and the content of Into the Abyss is instantly compelling. But Herzog also takes a curious perspective – openly ignoring Perry’s pleas of innocence and retreading the often unpleasant aspects of the case not as an attempt to reopen the investigation but merely to provide emotional ammunition for later scenes.
It’s clear that the director’s intention for the film is to function as a call to action against the barbarism of the death penalty in the 21st century. And it’s a noble intent for a documentary but leaves the viewer with something of a mixed message – there’s no doubt in the mind of the family of the victims that Perry’s punishment is justified and no attempt is made to directly interrogate the issue.Into the Abyss remains a powerful documentary about loss and a glimpse at a southern America community used to a revolving door of prison sentences and casual violence. Against this backdrop, Herzog states his opinion on the death penalty and leaves the rest of the film open to our interpretation, swaddling us in a lyrical and necessarily biased tale of how death affects us all.
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