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Non-Review Review: Into The Abyss

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2012.

Capital punishment is always a thorny issue to tackle, if only because of the delicate relationship between the victim and perpetrator of the original crime. It’s easy to seem sly or manipulative while painting the convicted murder as some victim of society or social injustice, while ignoring the impact of their actions on the family and friends of those they killed. Werner Herzog is always a deeply fascinating director, whether of narrative films or documentaries.

Here, he displays that sense of engagement and fair play that really makes him such a compelling documentary film maker. There’s something candid and honest in the way that Herzog tackles his subjects, where it doesn’t seem like he’s concealing an agenda from his audience or manipulating what we’re seeing. He does have preconceptions, but he lays them out in front of us, rather than using slight of hand to mask his own arguments as objective facts. Into the Abyss is compelling and well-constructing viewing, with an engaging honesty.

Early in the film, Herzog lays his cards on the table while dealing with a death row inmate. “Just because I am talking with you,” he states, “it does not mean I like you.” He makes it clear that he opposes the death penalty, while constructing a film about one of the most straight-forward applications of it. There’s no suggestion that his subject might be innocent. It’s a brutal and heinous case, with a woman killed for her car and for two kids killed for their clicker to get into a gated community. Herzog doesn’t shy from the details, explaining how the pair calculated their actions, and how they boasted about it afterwards. Using footage from various crime scenes, he demonstrates the destruction caused by the pair.

This isn’t an attack on the death penalty based around the notion that sometimes the wrong people get convicted. Herzog doesn’t play to the gallery, and he doesn’t opt for an easy strawman argument. After all, if you want to construct a truly persuasive argument against the death penalty, you don’t attack the fringe case or the weakest point – those are easy moral victories, but they don’t get to the nub of the issue. Instead, Herzog tackles the most straight-forward black-and-white open-and-shut case, and works from there.

Herzog treats us to interviews with the condemned murderer, who he never presents as an innocent victim of wider society – instead portraying him as a charming huckster desperately trying to manipulate the facts, and refusing to acknowledge what he has done. After all, if the death penalty is truly and fundamentally unjust, then it must be so in the most heinous of cases. I respect the commitment that Herzog shows to his principles, and he does a solid job defending them. I think there’s an argument to be made that, on issues as fundamental as this, the divide of opinions is so great that he isn’t going to convert too many from one side to the other. Instead, he can merely provide insight and food for thought.

Herzog himself is very much a presence in his own film. While the director is only fleetingly glimpsed in reflections on windshields and glass screens, his voice is very clearly heard. He doesn’t just ask questions of his interviewees, he prompts them. Indeed, some of them actually thank him for articulating their thoughts in a clearer manner than they could themselves. However, he’s never as intrusive as Michael Moore or somebody similar, and his work never feels as biased or staged. Instead, it feels more intimate. It’s not that he’s trying to convince us to accept his perspective, but that he’s engaged in a fact-finding mission for his own clearly-stated purposes and we’re tagging along.

What’s most fascinating about Herzog’s documentary isn’t necessarily the case itself. The murder is fairly clear-cut, and Herzog explores it in great depth and detail. Instead, Herzog does an excellent job at teasing context, rather than bluntly stating it. As we tug at the various threads, we soak in a lot of information about the people of the area and the world that they inhabit. The little details aren’t dwelt upon, but we return to them time and again.

This is a world where, based on one interview and extracts from confessions and statements, adult literacy isn’t a given. One individual observes that his own grandfather wouldn’t accept a $2 collect call to tell him that his brother had died. It’s hard not to feel a little bit intrigued when we’re introduced to the wife of one of the perpetrators, living in a stately home, with a baby chair in the background. Don’t worry, Herzog does get to that point, but there are countless other questions that occur to us just from observing the environments and the anecdotes that the German filmmaker digs up.

While Into the Abyss isn’t necessarily the strongest argument against the death penalty, I don’t think Herzog intended it to be a “statement” film in the style of other popular documentaries like Bowling for Columbine. Instead, the director is merely documenting an intriguing journey of discovery, packed with real people. There’s a candid atmosphere in Herzog’s movie that you simply wouldn’t find in a film attempting to offer a more persuasive or objective style.

His interviewees are brutally honest, including the sister of a victim who attended the execution. “I’m not an evil person,” she insists, and we never feel any resentment towards her for holding her opinions. “Some people don’t deserve to live.” It’s a gut-wrenching statement, particularly when she’s forced to relate how her brother’s murderer made a statement “forgiving” her for the “atrocity” that was his execution. And yet she concedes she would be content with life-long imprisonment and it never seems that she’s foaming at the mouth for revenge. She just wants to move on.

Into the Abyss is powerful stuff, and it balances its subject quite well. It doesn’t seem to make an argument so much as it offers an exploration, but that’s what makes it such a powerful and honest piece of film.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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