Film Review: Into the Abyss

Into the Abyss | Director Werner Herzog | Score: 6.8

We first see Michael Perry through the reinforced glass of a max security prison communication booth. With his bad saucer haircut and uneven buckteeth spread in a listless smile, you might mark him as a particularly guileless 15-year-old, the type of kid you’d see happily pumping your gas or assembling your burrito box at Taco Bell. Instead, he’s on death row for a particularly senseless triple homicide, and awaiting execution in a scant eight days.

Naturally, the first actual voice we hear in the film is the familiar exclamatory German accent of director Werner Herzog, who has travelled to Texas to record another one of his peculiarly gripping ruminations, this time on the subject of capital punishment, a judicial practice he cannot abide. Fortunately, rather than restating the usual arguments against it — systemic failure, ethical consternation, it’s failure as any kind of deterrent — Herzog instead gives us a kind of open riff on the subject, beginning with an inexact and increasingly frustrating account of the crime itself (something about two idiotic young men who so desperately want to joyride in the new Camaro of one of their cronies, they murder him, his friend and his mother in the process). We never get a single, definitive explication, just snippets from the police and the two convicted perps, a method that successfully scrambles the details enough that you get a sense of the confusion and cloudiness of the assaults in the first place. Naturally, Herzog doesn’t stop there. He goes on to speak with a good deal many other people whose lives were affected by this brutal act, including the surviving sister and brother of two of the victims, the prison Chaplin, the investigating officer, and the former captain of the Texas death row unit in which Mr. Perry eventually meets his fate.

Which is to say, he gets executed, despite his continued protestations of innocence. Herzog, for one, doesn’t seem in the least bit interested in pursuing this angle — creating a potential addendum to fellow documentarian Errol Morris’ brilliant The Thin Blue Line — for all intents and purposes, Perry’s conviction in of itself is beside the point. Whether he is guilty, as can be surmised from the evidence, or innocent as he proclaims, the fact of the matter is the actual process of murdering another human being as a punishment for their own murderous crime is neither moral nor effective. But Herzog is also far too canny to create a simple polemic representing his high-minded POV, and he’s not afraid to show an effective counter-point.

One of the key interview subjects is with the woman whose brother and mother were gunned down. She attended the execution, and explains how much lighter it made her feel, how much of a sense of closure she got from the experience. She’s calm, rational, well-spoken and doesn’t want to seem evil-minded or cruel, but to her, Perry got precisely what he deserved, which at least brings her a measure of peace. For her, at least, the ladder placed in the ‘abyss’ of the title was a means of climbing up a few rungs, rather than going further down.


Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for magazine ( His reviews can be found on and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success.  You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.

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