Legendary filmmaker and Academy Award nominee, Werner Herzog returns with a look into why people – and the state – kill. What emerges is “Into the Abyss,” a powerful documentary about a vicious triple murder that occurred in Conroe, Texas by two young men – Jason Burkett and Michael Perry. The film, subtitled “A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life,” is exactly that showing the views of the convicted and the victims’ family as well as others involved. The overall theme shows a mystery of why the killings took place, but at the same time, in Herzog’s opinion, how can the state take a life?
Broken into various segments, the film captures each view for the audience to get an education in what their particular stances on the issue might be. It focuses mostly on Michael Perry, who is to be put to death by the time the film is near its epilogue. Jason Burkett, however, received a life sentence for his part in the crime. The families of the victims are interviewed and asked to show framed pictures of the victim they knew, constantly reminding us of who was killed and what they were like – hearing about them from their loved ones.
Herzog is a master at getting every detail he wants out of the people he’s interviewing, no matter how personal or discouraging it might be. The film is a visceral experience reflecting, in a way, the technique used by Claude Lanzmann in his 1985 epic, “Shoah.” Footage is shown of the Conroe landscapes, as well as Huntsville, Texas area – where more criminals are executed than anywhere in the entire United States combined. Seeing where the crime took place years later, as well as police video footage give the surreal impression of experiencing what happened first hand.
The filming techniques as well as the score to the film create a certain ominous feeling throughout the entire duration. There is room for the occasional laugh though, as well. The film doesn’t demand complete emotional exhaustion, which is more or less represented in the trailer. For the most part though, of course, the film shows the extremity of love combined with the loss of family which has left many of the interviewees changed forever.
The film also shows a sort of secure optimism that comes from life in general. It leaves you with the question of “How are you going to live your dash?” This meaning the dash that will be on your tombstone in between the day you’re born and when you die. The dash signifies everything in between, your whole life.
“Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life” is now playing in select theaters.