Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Penny Thoughts ‘12—Into the Abyss (2011) ****

PG-13, 107 min.
Director/Writer: Werner Herzog
Starring: Jason Burkett, Michael Perry, Jeremy Richardson, Kristen Willis

The films of Werner Herzog have become a fascination in the examination of the human soul. Herzog obsesses over the desperation and delusion of the human condition. Often he chooses subjects who are unusually chipper considering their circumstances. Often they are oblivious to their misperceptions. That’s wrong. ‘Misperceptions’ would be too judgmental for Herzog.

In this study of a Death Row murder case in Texas, Herzog’s camera is never judgmental. He gives all sides equal consideration without judgment. “Into the Abyss” is different than other crime documentaries like Errol Morris’s “The Thin Blue Line” or the “Paradise Lost” trilogy about the Memphis Three. It is not an investigation into the truth of what happened, although it does not ignore the truth. This movie concerns itself with the complexities of capitol punishment and the arguments for and against it.

Herzog states early on that he is against the death penalty, but he does not set out to prove his point. Instead he sets out to complicate it. What really fascinates Herzog about this argument are the people it involves and the different realities they each bring to their part in the process and therefore their contributions to the argument. Much like in his documentary “Grizzly Man”, about poor Timothy Treadwell, who lost sight of the fact that bears were not people until one ate him, Herzog lets his subjects tell their own stories. This relieves Herzog of the burden of shaping the audience’s opinions of these people and allows the subjects to form the audience’s opinions for them.

I don’t think Herzog intends to answer any questions with the movie. He only intends to show how we all complicate our own questions. In detailing the murders as meticulously as he does here, he allows us to see why the State of Texas chose to convict one man for life and another to death. He also shows those men convinced they were wronged by their convictions. He also shows us survivors of the victims and employees of the state who are alternately opposed to the death penalty and in support of it. But in the end, this movie isn’t really about the death penalty. It’s about all the people it affects and the ways they perceive their own place in a world with it.

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