Into The Abyss - Cinema Review

'More than looking into the typical abyss - at death itself or what might come afterwards - Herzog's great void is America.'

Within a few minutes of the first chapter of his latest documentary, Into The Abyss: A Tale Of Death, A Tale Of Life, Werner Herzog is laying it out straight. 'I don't have to like you', he tells one of his subjects, Michael Perry, a convicted murderer, 'but I do not believe any person should be killed'. Perry, twenty-eight, is being interviewed by Herzog from behind a clear plastic screen and is, at the start of the film, due to be put to death by lethal injection in a matter of days.

With this in mind the German's documentary follows the predictable route of exploring the whys and wherefores of Perry and co-convict Jason Burkett's horrible crimes; how they forced entry into a home, stole a car, killed the owner and proceeded to murder two further people before being apprehended in a shootout with local police. The subtitle to the film seems to refer to these two individuals; one sentenced to die, the other, bizarrely and to the detriment of the Texas penal system, sentenced to life inside.

But, as ever with Herzog, there is more going on than simply analysing dramatic events. More than looking into the typical abyss - at death itself or what might come afterwards - Herzog's great void is America. Small towns with small bars and small crime, large families with histories of violence and a lack of unit, individuals who each have their own tale of life, often interwoven with a tale of death. It's Americana, at its very core.

Herzog's film has a pang of hopelessness about it; he sees that the Perry and Burkett story is destined to be repeated again and again, his intended 'life' story cannot separate itself from the death rattles of some of the pictures' 'stars'.

Part of the problem with this is that Into The Abyss perhaps ends painting an un-defined picture. The relatives of those who died, clearly still coping with grief, seem unable to decide on their stance regarding the death penalty. A member of the so-called 'Death House', who managed to solemnly preside over some one-hundred and twenty executions, tells how he suddenly had to quit, to get away from it. Even the people who have looked into the abyss at closer quarters than Herzog seem to still be formulating their arguments, inhabiting conflicting opinions.

Yet there is definite success here too. Death, Herzog justifiably suggests, seems to be intertwined with American life. It's not revelatory, but it is a poignant contemplation, well observed.

Into The Abyss is released in selected UK cinemas on Friday 30th March 2012.

Look further...

James Rocchi interviews Herzog for The Hitlist.

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