Author: Kiley, Brendan
Date published: November 16, 2011
Crime and Punishment and Herzog
An Excellent New Documentary About Murder in America
Sudden, violent, and mysterious deaths are powerful vacuums. They suck in, or at least alter the course of, the lives all around them-not just the family and friends of the dead, but even total strangers who are sometimes thousands of miles and hundreds of years away. Hamlet, the Oresteia, the New Testament: The stories our culture keeps telling itself hinge on individual deaths that set off chain reactions of more death. Werner Herzog's excellent new documentary, Into the Abyss, hinges on the same idea.
On its face, Abyss is about two moments of murder in Conroe, Texas (population around 50,000). The fi rst is a triple slaying where two boys killed a mother, her son, and one of the son's friends just to get the mother's red car. The second is the state's plan to execute one of the boys (now a young man) within hours of his chilling on-camera interview. Herzog begins the interview by telling the young man that he disapproves of the death penalty and is sorry for his plight, even though Herzog doesn't necessarily like him as a person. The young man blinks, nods, says, "Yessir," and smilingly segues into talking about Christianity.
Herzog's camera scours the people and landscape of Conroe, as well as the protocol of murder, from police footage (pools of dried blood, the feet of the corpses stashed in the woods) to the execution chamber (a crucifi x-shaped table, a microphone and theater light suspended over its pillow). He interviews the murderers, the cops, friends and families and legal advocates (one of the advocates married one of the murderers), and even the bartender who was on shift when the murderers showed up to show off the red car. The details of Into the Abyss are thoroughly Herzogian- an executioner who quit his job and became an anti- death penalty advocate, the shape of bullet casings, the tree that grew up through the stolen car while it sat rusting in a police impound lot. Into the Abyss is a big fi lm about a small town: scary and gorgeous, with improbable hints of hope. It also demonstrates that Herzog is not simply a masterful fi lmmaker, but one of the world's best living journalists.