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

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.

RATING 3 / 10