Toronto International Film Festival 2011: ‘Into the Abyss’


Director: Werner Herzog

Cast: Richard Lopez, Michael Perry, Damon Hall, Lisa Stotler-Balloun, Charles Richardson, Jason Burkett, Jared Talbert, Amanda West, Delbert Burkett, Melyssa Thompson-Burkett, Fred Allen

Country: USA

Among the most beloved art house directors working today, Werner Herzog could make a movie about just about anything and the critics would fall over themselves praising it. Perhaps this is because there is a critic-proof quality to his work, so rife it is with broken rules, oddball flights of fancy, uncompromising artistry, and downright bizarre choices.

In his documentaries especially, Herzog throws the supposed regulations out completely, ditching any pretense toward objectivity or “documentation” for a decidedly first-person perspective. He doesn’t just interview his subjects, he debates with them. He asks surprising, heavily loaded questions of them. He is full of leading suggestions — at one point in Into the Abyss he asks someone to describe a gunfight: “And you arrived at the scene. Was it mayhem?” — and seems always as though he is literally directing the documentary while he is out there documenting it. As one reporter acquaintance of mine complains: “He does everything we are taught as reporters never to do, and all these artists think he’s a genius.” Well, yes.

The genius of a Herzog documentary lies precisely in its unwillingness to be a traditional documentary. It’s a film, as much a self-consciously constructed piece of narrative art as a fictional movie. Once you are cool with that, it all becomes a lot more illuminating. This time around, Herzog has chased a decidedly bleak story about a senseless triple homicide that took place a decade ago in a Texas backwater. With the perpetrators in prison, and one of them just days away from execution, Herzog undertakes interviews of all of the key players (and a few peripheral ones), building a case against capital punishment along the way.

Full of Herzogian trademarks and quirks, it is perhaps a bit too funny for its own good. One feels from time to time a certain mocking tone that could have been tempered somewhat more effectively through editing. It works best when it carries a darker, sadder tone, revealing so much about the human costs of Rick Perry’s culture of death without ever mentioning his name. In an indelible moment, Herzog asks a death row preacher to elaborate on an offhand remark about seeing squirrels on the golf course (“please tell me more about your encounters with the squirrels?” — cue an eruption of laughter in the theatre) and the preacher breaks down in tears.

Here is Herzog at his best: asking the strangest question imaginable after picking up on a seemingly inconsequential detail, and achieving a moment of stark emotion the other guys would’ve missed. Sometimes it takes an artist to do a reporter’s job.

RATING 7 / 10