By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
The best documentarians mix up their subject material regularly, showing a broad range of interests and a nose for unique stories. Even among the Errol Morris’s and James Marsh’s of the world, the owner of the all-time best villain voice, Werner Herzog, is especially eclectic. He’s documented Vietnam POWs, a man who lived with wild grizzles, the people who make a permanent home of Antartica, prehistoric cave paintings in 3D!!, and himself literally eating his shoe.
That recipe actually looks kind of delicious
Now he tackles the death penalty. The subject has been covered before, and his technique is simple- interviewing everyone involved in a Texas murder case, including the death row inmate, his friend who got life, that man’s incarcerated father and wife, acquaintances from their hometown, the cop who had the case, the victim’s sister and sole surviving relative, a former executioner, and several more. What emerges, though, is much larger than the scope of the subject. Like always, Herzog expands his film to address questions of life, death, and what it means to be human.
This film is fairly simple even for a documentary. It is almost entirely just a camera trained on a single subject, with Herzog behind it asking question whenever it’s necessary to clarify details or nurture a train of thought. When you choose subjects this fascinating, that’s all you need. Herzog knows just when to push for a bit more, and the payoff is real, unsuppressed emotion that is difficult not to empathize with, regardless of the speaker.
For my money, the segment that packed the most punch was towards the end, when Herzog gets to interview a former death row executioner. Regardless of your views on the institution, and I have mixed feelings on it myself, this will make you think. An earlier interview with the victim’s sister describing the catharsis that witnessing her brother’s murderer die gave her offers a potent counterargument, but this man’s story of participating in Texas’s first execution of a woman and how that finally eroded the foundation of his faith in the institution is even more convincing.
In the end Into the Abyss deserves high praise because it masterfully accomplishes what any good documentary, or piece of art in general should- it holds up a mirror to examine yourself and your convictions in.
On an unrelated note, God Damn, but in-utero pictures look just like Ridley Scott monsters. You’ll know what I’m talking about when you see it.
I wavered between this and A Toast, but had to add a beer when it became obvious that Herzog was intentionally pressing buttons with his questions to provoke the most emotional responses possible. This makes for fascinating, but also supremely depressing, viewing. Some of the responses sound like bad country music songs. One story, almost verbatim, goes like this: “He was supposed to marry me, but he died, got hit by a train, with my older brother, and the family dog.”
That’s Patsy Cline as fuck
So, maybe don’t skip the Prozac before you watch this, but if you’re in the mood for a thought-provoking documentary delivered by one of the masters of the genre at the top of his game, you should give it a look.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: whenever someone mentions being in jail
Take a Drink: whenever a violent act is attributed to Michael Perry
Do a Shot: every time someone breaks down emotionally (actually, don’t. I think that would officially make you a sociopath- an extremely drunk sociopath)