Reviews

Dead Theme Walking: 'Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death. A Tale of Life.'

The best theme I can guess for Into Abyss would be something like, “Werner Herzog loves life, hates death, and really, really, likes making movies.”


Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death. A Tale of Life

Director: Werner Herzog
Cast: Fred Allen, Jason Burkett, Melyssa Burkett, Werner Herzog
Length: 107 minutes
Studio: Creative Differences Productions, Skellig Rock
Year: 2011
Distributor: MPI
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material and some disturbing images
Release date: 2012-04-10

Perhaps I’ve been desensitized after decades of movie watching, video game playing, and television absorption, but I found Werner Herzog’s latest documentary, Into the Abyss almost entirely without merit. As a fan of the eccentric director, this realization upsets me. As a fan of film in general, it annoys me. As a critic, it’s perplexing. The problem I find with Herzog’s latest is the same one facing me as a writer – what’s left to say about the death penalty?

The Herzogian twist for Into the Abyss is that the film isn’t just about the death penalty as it relates to state government, but it's also about what motivates people to take the law into their own hands, killing for whatever reason they deem good enough. I guess this could be compelling material in another doc, but here it’s instantly forgettable. I had to remind myself again and again throughout the movie that this wasn’t only about the case it examines.

Herzog frames his story around Matthew Perry and Jason Burkett, two convicts imprisoned in Texas after committing a triple homicide. Perry is on death row while Burkett is living out the rest of his days in prison. Herzog nevertheless gives each equal screen time, and even throws some minutes to Burkett’s father, also an inmate.

Here is where Into the Abyss started to lose me. In a movie with a subtitle as all-inclusive as A Tale of Death. A Tale of Life, something has to stand out. Almost nothing does. First we meet Perry, an unusually smiley fellow given he’s only eight days from his state-mandated death. He tries, in less than eloquent language, to describe his inner turmoil and thoughts relating to mortality. But he’s much more interested in discussing his deserved freedom – clearly he thinks this doc is his shot at life. It’s not, but his hope in the film is the only gripping element of his interviews.

Burkett isn’t much better, but not because he’s less articulate (he’s actually more compelling than his cohort on death row). His stories just don’t relate to the thesis. Much is made of the love he found while behind bars (this isn’t an I Love You Phillip Morris situation – he met a woman from outside the pen). Even more time is devoted to his upbringing, a la his inexorably incarcerated father.

But what’s the point? Are we supposed to care about the mundane stories of career criminals because they’re human, like us? Does Burkett’s marriage make him more morally upstanding? Is it an indication of reform? Is it an indication of anything at all? Is any of it?

The answer I kept coming back to was “no”. It’s clear what Into the Abyss isn’t about – it’s not about repealing the death penalty through a heartbreaking story of innocence. These guys did the deed. It’s not about how the prison system works and can reform criminals when given the time to do so – both of these guys may have changed, but it’s more likely they just know what to say for the camera. It’s not even about how Burkett’s situation is so much more preferable than Perry’s – yes, he found love (I guess), but the disappointment expressed by his father and the deadness in his eyes when he speaks convey nothing positive about life in prison.

The best theme I can guess for Into Abyss would be something like, “Werner Herzog loves life, hates death, and really, really, likes making movies.” He may have gone into this with the best intentions, but his attempts to spin gold from plain ol’ thread is in vain. He cuts in a few lingering shots of nature, one of a freeway, and plenty of the prison. He even splits the movie up into chapters with vague titles meant to establish focus, but nothing can coherently connect these individual interviews with a broader, encompassing premise.

The only special feature included on the Blu-ray is the film’s theatrical trailer. Though I’m always a little less eager to see extras of documentary films, I would have loved a director’s commentary for this one. Not only would it be nice to hear Herzog explain his cinematic choices, but we’d get to hear that wonderful accent instead of the irrelevant voices of his doc.

Try as he might, there’s no new ground covered here. Into the Abyss, despite using real people, has much less of an impact on its audience than similarly themed narrative dramas like Dead Man Walking, The Green Mile, or countless other entries. Hopefully Herzog will find more unique ground to cover for his next feature.

3


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Film

Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.

Books

The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.

Music

Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.

Music

King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.

Music

Jim O'Rourke's Experimental 'Shutting Down Here' Is Big on Technique

Jim O'Rourke's Shutting Down Here is a fine piece of experimental music with a sure hand leading the way. But it's not pushing this music forward with the same propensity as Luc Ferrari or Derek Bailey.

Music

Laraaji Returns to His First Instrument for 'Sun Piano'

The ability to help the listener achieve a certain elevation is something Laraaji can do, at least to some degree, no matter the instrument.

Music

Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.

Music

The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.

Music

Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.

Film

The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.

Music

'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.

Music

Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.

Books

Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.

Music

South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.

Music

Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.

Music

'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.

Books

A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.

Music

The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.