Herzog’s Into the Abyss: Interesting Film or Disastrous Advocacy Piece?

If I were evaluating Werner Herzog’s new documentary Into the Abyss solely on the basis of entertainment value, I could tell you that it’s great. It’s not an instant classic like Grizzly Man, but it’s a fascinating story told in Herzog’s frustrating, entertaining style. (And as long as we’re ranking Herzog docs, it’s more entertaining than Encounters at the End of the World, but less Herzoggy — less voiceover, fewer misanthropic one-liners about his love of cold indifference and hatred of sunlight).

But I have a hard time not seeing it at least partially as a piece of advocacy. Herzog wanted it, as the film’s producer says, released early, so that it could become part of the death penalty debate. He’s said in interviews that it’s not meant as a “crusading doc,” and he doesn’t intend it as anti-capital punishment piece, even though he states a few times throughout the movie that he doesn’t believe in the death penalty. If I give him the benefit of the doubt on not taking a particular position, I’d say the film’s last act, at best, still betrays a certain blind spot in his storytelling. At worst, it’s the least-successful anti-death penalty film I’ve ever seen.

Herzog had originally profiled five death-row inmates for the film — four men and one woman — but has since pared the film down to two accomplices in a Texas triple homicide, one on death row, the other serving life. Interviewed eight days before his execution, chatty, smiley Michael Perry (top), was sentenced to death, while his dour accomplice, Jason Burkett (right), got life in prison. Ten years ago, when they were both 19, Perry and Burkett broke into an acquaintance’s house inside a gated community, shot his mom while she was baking cookies, dumped her body in a lake, then waited for the acquaintance to get home and killed him and a friend he happened to be with at the time, all so Perry and Burkett could make off with a Camaro and an Isuzu Rodeo. Like In Cold Blood, both claimed the other was the shooter. Either way, nice guys.

In interviewing the friends and family of both the killers and the victims (many of whom overlap in Conroe, Texas, a town of 53,000 outside Houston), one thing that shines through in this story is how much tragedy seems to attract tragedy, to the point that it’s borderline comical. The sister of one of the victims tells a story about losing virtually all of her family members in a six-year period, from car accidents, murders, suicide, and cancer. The brother of another victim, who actually introduced the killer Jason Burkett to his brother, has two tear drop tattoos on his cheek, one for his murdered brother, another for his dead sister who got hit by a car in a separate, apparently random incident. His father? Also in prison for murder. One of Herzog’s most entertaining interview subjects is another acquaintance of Burkett’s who Burkett once tried to kill at a house party (luckily, the single-shot pistol aimed at his temple misfired). The same guy describes getting stabbed in the ribs with a giant screw driver during a separate bar fight and then going to work without ever seeking medical attention. He was illiterate into his twenties, and has a tattoo of his girlfriend’s name, “Bailey,” on his right forearm. Herzog asks what will happen if he and Bailey break up. He says “Well, I guess I’ll have to change it to ‘Bailey Sucks’.”

Yes, these are dead-end people.

Fascinating as it may be, at times you wish Herzog’s mind didn’t operate so much like a flock of starlings, turning on a dime and leaving certain subjects untouched in favor of anything shiny. At one point Herzog prefaces a question to Michael Perry with, “I don’t want to get into the details of the case, but…”

But what? Why not? They’re going to kill the dude in eight days. If you’re not going to talk about his case now, when? Call me crazy, but the details of the crime Perry is getting killed for seem like crucial information.

Other times, Herzog’s quirkiness works for him, such as his now-famous directive to the death row chaplain, “Please describe an encounter with a squirrel.”

I could listen to Herzog narrate an intense encounter with a squirrel for hours, but sadly, that’s as Herzoggy as it gets. The most successful moments of the film are when Herzog interviews death-row guards and chaplains, as a reminder that even if we think some criminals deserve death, it’s a lot to ask of a civilian to carry out that punishment week in week out.

My problem with Into the Abyss, and it’s a big one, comes in the last section of the film. One of Jason Burkett’s lawyers, while working on his case, as so often bizarrely happens, has fallen in love with the convicted murderer and the two were married. As Herzog interviews her in her home, she reveals that she’s three months pregnant. Death row inmates aren’t allowed conjugal visits, but it’s strongly hinted that Burkett’s wife smuggled his semen out of prison and managed to knock herself up with it. And Herzog seems fascinated by this.

Up until that point, the only positive aspect of this whole awful story was that at least neither Burkett nor Perry would be able to procreate and add more dead-end spawn to the wretched hive of scum and villainy from whence they came. In fact, the only reason Burkett didn’t receive the death penalty was that his father, spending the rest of his life in prison himself, was allowed to come to the court room during the sentencing phase and give a tearful speech in which he blamed himself never being around (because he was in prison) for creating the conditions that led to his child growing up to be a murderer. Interview subjects and Werner himself say a few times during the movie that they don’t believe capital punishment to be a deterrent, but is this not clear anecdotal evidence that it is?

I came into the film as a person who doesn’t believe in capital punishment (mainly because we’ve accidentally killed innocent people in the past, and avoiding that seems more important than killing the guilty), but Into the Abyss actually made me rethink my position. Because say what you will about executing Michael Perry, at least he won’t have the opportunity to bring any of his shitstain kids into the world to be raised by some dingy paralegal who thinks a permanently incarcerated criminal is her one true love. Because you know what that sounds like a recipe for? More murder.

And that’s the crux of this review. Do I give Werner credit for provoking that thought, or do I scream at him for calling the last chapter his film, in which a murderer from a long line of criminals manages to pass down his shitty genes to another mental defective, “The Urgency of Life?” Because I would’ve called it “The Urgency of Vasectomy.”