Did you know that there are whole TV channels dedicated to true crime? Actual channels showing endless documentaries on serious crime; investigating and re-investigating, telling and re-telling the shocking and tragic details of the story, feeding our insatiable desire for factual analysis of events that can never be properly explained. Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss share similarities with these often sensationalist and righteous ten-a-penny documentaries as he tells the stories of Justin Burkett and Michael Perry, two men convicted of a senseless triple homicide in Conroe, Texas in 2001, yet Herzog elevates his work above the cliché trajectory of ‘true crime’ using the most important character any documentary filmmaker has, himself.Herzog makes his heavy directorial hand explicit in his distinctively drawled questions and musings. Clearly bored with his first interviewee’s TV Evangelist proselytising, Herzog intervenes demanding with child-like insistence ‘why does God allow capital punishment?’ One question from Herzog and the Reverend unravels as he compares the squirrels on his golf course (in danger of death by golf cart) to the convicts on death row (in danger of death by lethal injection).
Influencing the convicts, their families, the victim’s families and members of the wider Conroe community in his distinctive interviewing style, peppered with manipulative prompts, biased opinions and tangents, Herzog also does a sterling job of manipulating his audience, purposefully following a fairly light-hearted conversation with Michael Perry (who, frankly, looked just a little bit too much like Lloyd Christmas for me to take seriously) with grisly crime scene footage building with dreaded anticipation to a shot of dead flesh, badly wrapped in a silk sheet and dumped in the dirty water of a shallow lake. Rather than a parable on the horrors of capital punishment, Into the Abyss is a magnificently edited debate that gives each person, no matter where they sit on the right-to-wrong morality spectrum of capital punishment, a moment to feel validated before turning the tables and forcing them to question their beliefs.
Offering little insight into the guilt or innocence of the men, Herzog gives screen time to the people that interest him most, such as Justin Burkett’s father who, in his expression of deep shame at being incarcerated with both of his sons, is the voice of a whole family, a whole community of people who appear physically unable to exist within the parameters of the law. Similarly, Herzog sees poignancy in the story of a once illiterate, now hard-working acquaintance of the convicts as well as Fred Allen, former captain of the ‘Death House’, who after overseeing over 120 executions now refutes the right of the state to carry out capital punishment.
It is these periphery stories that hint at the ‘deeper stratum of truth’ Herzog seeks to find in this work and form the latter part of the films subtitle: a tale of death, a tale of life. As well as a tale of death and life in Texas, Herzog insists Into the Abyss is a tale of God. Despite, or perhaps because of, the consistent claims to Christian spirituality from almost all of the people involved in the film I would have to disagree. Into the Abyss is a tale of the hell we create here on earth all by ourselves.