Title: Into The Abyss

Directed By: Werner Herzog

Written By: Werner Herzog

Cast: Werner Herzog

Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 10/19/11

Opens: November 11, 2011 in NY and LA

As surprisingly down-to-earth as this film is-considering that Werner Herzog is anything but down-to-earth for the bulk of his large output-“Into the Abyss” can be compared to some of his most mythic works. “Fata Morgana,” for example, is divided into three sections, just as “Abyss” is served up as five. In “Fata Morgana,” the first is a wasteland; the second introduces signs of human wreckage, the third indicates mere vestiges of life. “Land of Silence and Darkness, a doc about a middle-aged woman who is deaf and blind, evokes the damaged quality of humankind as perfectly natural. “Aguirre,” which looks at conquistadores, projects a band that becomes pathologically destructive, while “Stroszek” sees a country as a member of the kingdom of darkness.

These pessimistic themes appear in “Into the Abyss,” which looks into the soul of humankind, specifically one who has been condemned to death while his father is serving time during the lad’s execution. Another is spending his life behind bars. A few subjects are connected to the Texas death industry, such as a reverend who notes that he stands next to the condemned holding onto his ankle until the moment of death; a captain, responsible for getting the condemned strapped efficiently to the gurney; a woman whose brother is a victim of one murder; the young man who had been found guilty and given a death sentence ten years earlier; the wife of a lifer who became pregnant shortly after seeing her husband, presumably (so she says) by artificial insemination. Director Herzog wryly comments that contraband is usually from the visitor to the prisoner but in that case, the delivery took place in reverse.

The principal flaw, one which ranks this film considerably below most of the German-born director’s output, is that the movie is rarely opened up. When photographer Peter Zeitlinger looks beyond the folks being interviewed by Mr. Herzog, it’s only to get a look at the ramshackle towns of Conroe, Texas, and its neighbor (no joke), Cut and Shoot, TX, six miles east of Conroe, 40 miles from Houston, and getting its name when a small boy reportedly declared “I’m going to cut around the corner and shoot through the bushes in a minute!” This statement apparently stayed in the residents’ minds. The Conroe Convention and Visitors Bureau’s website calls that town “a beautiful collision of nature, history, the arts and recreation all nestled in the Piney Woods of East Texas.” Somehow under the link for “things to do,” murder is not mentioned.

A triple murder took Herzog to the area to interview eleven people with some relevance to the crime. A woman in a gated community, no less, is killed by two teen-agers looking to steal her car probably for just a joy ride. Two others are dispatched when the killers used them to find the code that would unlock the gate. One teen, Jason Burkett, was sentenced to life imprisonment, the other, Michael Perry, got the death penalty and is interviewed just eight days before he received a lethal injection at Texas’ death house at Huntsville. We’re not apprised of the reason for the different sentences.

Herzog is allowed under one hour for each of the incarcerated fellows. Michael Perry, big smiles on his face, almost gleefully submits his wrists for handcuffs, asserts his innocence (the other guy did it) and has the chutzpah while on the gurney to forgive the family of the victims. He, like his accomplice Jason Burkett, is articulate, as though flattered that a great filmmaker has gone to the Texas sticks to interview him. Perry indicates that he kept his sanity by refusing to “look” at the walls enclosing him.

Mirroring Herzog’s own repulsion at the death penalty, Charles Richardson, a captain of a death squad responsible for strapping the condemned onto the gurney, quit his job though he lost his pension, becoming disgusted with the whole procedure. In a way Richardson reflects Timothy Spall’s character, Albert Pierrepont, responsible for scores of hangings in Britain but who ultimately repents-having had enough. As the most articulate spokesperson, Melyssa Thompson-Burkett, a perky woman who married lifer Jason Burkett, is coy about admitting that the child in her womb is Jason’s.

I would have liked Herzog to focus more on why so many people in the little town of Conroe are behind bars, including Michael Perry’s dad-who blames himself for not “being there” for the boy. Is there something hereditary about these killers, considering that a great many Americans live below the poverty line and do not commit crimes? There are good reasons for abolishing the death penalty, but Herzog does not convince us to his view that the punishment is barbaric, in fact highlighting testimony from Lisa Stotler-Balloun who states that she breathed a sigh of relief when she witnessed her brother’s killer’s execution.

Unrated. 108 minutes. (c) 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Story – B

Acting – B

Technical C

Overall – B-

Into the Abyss Movie

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