Into The Abyss Reviews
From victims to criminals to executioner they all play a part on this canvas. A must see....
A psychological study of 2 men on death row & the facts of the crime that lead them there, & it's not easy watching.
Filled with confronting facts & interviews this documentary digs deep & although in many places doesn't give answers it's interesting none the less. A relevant, honest & hard hitting film....very compelling.
Sometimes we promote a movie just by saying that its based on real life. But after looking at a person who was executed 8 days after the movie was shot knowing that he knew that he was going to die in 8 days and seeing his reaction to all of it. It was a terrific experience. In a way reminded me so much of my favorite director Ingmar Bergman cause it mirrored his way of moving into the troubled consciousness, the uncomfortable zone we always avoid, the perspectives and constructs we fail to see or sometimes choose to overlook in favor of more accessible philosophies.
Herzog's documentaries aren't usually about their topic but rather the subjects within them, specifically, the people within them. Grizzly Man for instance isn't really a nature film it is a character study of a man- this is just one example but it applies to the majority of Herzog's documentaries. Now there are exceptions, more typical-format documentaries if you will such as 'Wheel Of Time' which is, for the most part, about the topic from which it take its title. Herzog then has the third strain of documentaries that aren't documentaries at all, they are a strange breed of history and fictitious filmmaking- 'Death For Five Voices' for example.
This is important because I consider the 'On Death Row' series to be the second kind of documentary described above- stuck to the story with Herzog adding artistic touches as the icing on the cake. What became clear with this one though is that it does not share this.
'Into The Abyss' is the first type of Herzog documentary- this isn't really about the death sentence, it isn't really about the man being executed specifically either, in fact he doesn't feature in this very much at all. This is about people, people who have been affected by this one specific case ranging from those convicted to the family of the victims to people who just happened to know those involved in passing- it is a series of stories about a series of people all connected by this one case. That is deserving of a feature-length piece.
Seeing it like that, this was a strong film- there's much emotion and some truly devastating stories from, what seems like relatively normal people, who are involved in this, so uncommon situation. We never learn much about Michael Perry other than that he maintained his innocence. We do however learn about the daughter of one of Perry's victims and her story is as heart breaking as it gets. We speak with so many people from so many areas in this- one is destined to die by lethal injection, one is destined to remain in jail forever, one could be released in their mid-60s, one has to live on without their brother, one has to live on without several members of their family, one is in the stages of creating a family and one is at the start of a new life. Are all these people heading into the abyss? I don't think so- I think some have already been and maybe are still in it and some have even overcome it. It is truly fascinating and devastating getting so close to these people with Herzog's unforgiving camera capturing their every move- from that perspective it is some of Herzog's best documentary-work.
there are some problems though- it is quite clear that this was not a planned feature-length piece- at times it feels very similar to the rather clear-cut approach of the TV series and when it concentrates on the people involved it feels like it is straying from its course. This looks like a fairly simple 'death row documentary' of which there are many but it isn't and that creates a strange viewing experience- we are shown details of the murders, introduced to the people responsible but then we are moved to a man who learned to read late in his life or to a former bartender who has had to block out her work experiences due to what she witnessed. It feels disorganised in a way that Grizzly Man, which has a similar split going on, does not.
With these kinds of films usually comes a political message to boot and sure Herzog states his views here but only in passing- they are more prevalent in the TV series and here they just tend to arise from discussion during interviews. This isn't really a damning conviction of the system, Herzog only needs a few sentences to criticise the system, this is, like most of his work, a story with many interesting characters that just happens to be true. Herzog did a piece on child soldiers after all and he managed to make that fairly un political- if you want something that is dominant in its critique then look elsewhere but if you want something that is dominant through human communication, which is essentially what a camera is all about, then this may just be for you.
It isn't nearly as accessible as you'd expect in this case and Herzog's refusal to make this about himself may be out of the average documentary viewer's comfort zone but this should appeal to Herzog fans though I don't recommend it as an introductory piece due to its uncertain structure.