As far as documentaries on criminal justice go, Werner Herzog’s Into The Abyss is definitely one of my favorites. Known for his explorations of dark subject matter, the iconic German filmmaker tackles the very difficult issue of death through the lens of a triple homicide case in Texas. Shot within eight days of death row inmate Michael Perry’s scheduled execution, the film manages to remain completely impartial, casting no judgment and making no assumptions. Instead, it masterfully explores the human psyche in trying to understand not only why people kill, but also why the state kills. Through his candid and deadpan interviews with the various players in this sordid story, Herzog tries to find some reason behind the unreasonable, some logic behind the madness. But most importantly, he doesn’t give us any answers. That part is up to us.
What is the abyss Herzog refers to in the title? Is it the small, horrible room with sickly green walls where grim-faced men carry out their death orders? Is it the jaded, fatalistic mindset that allows people like Perry and Burkett — both of whom are sane and eloquent and able-bodied — to commit three murders for the sake of a joy ride? Or is the abyss our country entire, with our gun-happy culture of violence and eye-for-an-eye sense of justice and tendency to condemn rural small towns and all who live there to the white-trash heap?