Into the Abyss was not an easy documentary to watch. The new movie by Werner Herzog is a meditation on death, told through the story of a senseless act of murder by two teenagers, followed by the execution of one of them (the other is serving life). It's the sort of documentary that in less adept hands would end up being shown late night on the National Geographic channel, but as it stands it's a beautiful and gut wrenching look at the darker side of our society.
Herzog makes it clear early in the film what he feels about the subject he is documenting during an interview he has with Michael Perry, the man who was executed eight days later. Though I don't have the quote, he basically says "I don't have to like you, but I respect your humanity, and I don't think the state has the right to execute you." Perry appears to be guilty, with no extenuating circumstances to excuse him. What he did was deplorable, and the tragedy of the situation is clearly shown. Even so, does he deserve to die? It is a tragedy to see three people killed so some young men could take a joy ride in a stolen car, but is it justice if a fourth dies for the same reason?
Life is precious, death is senseless. The movie opens with an interview of the Chaplain who provides comfort to the people being executed. "Why does God allow capital punishment?" asks Herzog. Within two minutes, the pastor is in tears (as was at least half of the audience, myself included). The sister and daughter of the victims appears as a modern day Job, her family cruelly taken from her for no reason. Ten years down the road and she is finally beginning to live again.
There are interviews with many people involved in the case, and it's very sad to see the culture out of which this act was generated. There's an interview with a friend of the two culprits who tells of getting stabbed at a party by a guy just because he didn't like him. He learned to read in his 20's... in prison. The brother of one of the three victims was arrested for parole violation at his brother's funeral. The incarcerated father of one of the perpetrators provides an incredibly touching interview, reflecting on the mistakes he made that led him to share a pair of handcuffs with his son on a prison bus.
The movie was impeccably edited, and beautifully filmed. Even the police footage transcends its original purpose. Herzog isn't afraid to let the camera linger after somebody is done talking, and in turn allow us a moment's reflection to let the gravity of the subject sink in. The movie is brutally human, never letting us forget that everybody involved is a human being, with dignity, family, and plans for the future. It doesn't flinch away from asking the hard questions, and at times I felt uncomfortable for the people being interviewed. Nobody likes to reflect on the worst moments of their lives.
Overall it was incredibly well done, though not necessarily a movie one watches to "enjoy." It's important, but not simple entertainment.