On July 10th, 2010, Michael Perry was executed in Texas for a murder committed almost nine years earlier in October 2001 in the town of Conroe, Texas. Eight days before his execution, knowing that his death was imminent and still protesting his innocence, Perry was interviewed by Werner Herzog. This interview, along with further interviews with people involved, such as law enforcement officers, the victims’ families, and people around the town at the time, make up this documentary.
You’d be forgiven for assuming that this is going to be a film calling the guilt of Michael Perry into doubt, and railing against the death penalty. Apparently, Perry assumed it would be and you can see the shock on his face when, early in the piece, Herzog explains to him that he’s not there as an advocate for him and while he believe he has a right to life and is against the death penalty, he does not feel obliged to like him very much.
Into The Abyss is by no means a polemic “ it’s simply a sombre documentary that explores the hope and hopelessness of prison inmates, their friends and families, and the people their crimes have touched. The film meanders “ from a death row priest whose job is to comfort prisoners in their final hours, to a waitress at a bar where Perry drank. Its focus is never sharp, instead it draws an impressionistic picture of the town at the time, the circumstances and the crime itself. Herzog wanders around Conroe and seems to find interviewees with bleak stories to tell all too easily “ a stabbing here, a shooting there, all told matter-of-factly. It feels like violence is just one of life’s undercurrents, the perpetrators and victims not extraordinary, half the interviewees speak as though it could be them in a cell or in the ground.
While overall the film may suffer slightly from this lack of focus, it does allow for the film’s most startling moments, as Herzog draws out fascinating snippets from his various interviewees. The most extraordinary is the prison guard whose job was to take prisoners to the chamber. Proud of the professional job he carried out for many years, he suddenly had an epiphany and handed in his notice. But even this is rivalled by the Conroe resident who reminisces idly about the screwdriver that was shoved into his armpit and the vicar musing on squirrels and God.
Werner Herzog has been involved in films since the 1960s and is an incredibly versatile man. He is st home both in front of and behind the camera, and seems equally comfortable working in narrative cinema and documentaries. His interests seem to vary wildly and it’s hard to imagine another director who have could have brought to us the frenzied weirdness of something like Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, before a couple of years later shooting this sombre, measured documentary. It’s a captivating, if depressing watch, though with flashes of light and humour. It’s a film that stays with you for a while, and forces you to reflect. That’s quite a rare achievement, making Into The Abyss a fine addition to Herzog’s ouvre.