Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Into the Abyss

One of the best courses I took in college was Crime Theory: The Reasoning Behind American Crime. Throughout the semester, my professor focused largely on one guy.  This guy, whose name currently escapes me, spent the better part of his career retracing the steps of 100 African Americans.

Basically, he picked 100 black people at random and retraced their family origins as far back as he could. The result? Ninety two of the people had ancestors that were slaves. That’s where the chain ended. The point was, if a boy was born the child of slaves, he was born with nothing. He would have to fight and claw his entire life to make ends meet. His sons would probably have to do the same. His son’s sons would probably have to do the same, and so on.

In short, the man’s theory was that if you’re born into a life of poverty, you’re going to do whatever you can to make a buck, often resorting to a life of crime. Imprisonment becomes natural, crimes are committed, then paid for, then committed, and a cycle is soon born.

I mention this not because Werner Herzog’s new riveting documentary has to do with African American crime (in fact, I don’t think there’s a single black person in the film), but rather because this theory helps convey why the subjects of Into the Abyss acted the way they acted. And why they are where they are.

Several years ago, Michael Perry and his friend Jason Burkett went to an acquaintance's house with the intention of stealing his Camaro. When they realized the acquaintance wasn’t home, Perry and Burkett killed his mother. They left the gated community, dumped the body, returned to the gated community, found that the community was… gated, waited for their acquaintance at the gate, kidnapped him and his friend, took them to the woods, and killed them in the dirt.  Then they went to a bar and bragged about it.
Michael Perry
When Herzog meets up with Perry and Burkett, Perry is eight days away from being put to death, and Burkett is fresh into a 40-year sentence for his crimes.  As we get to know the criminals more (through interviews with them and the people that know them) we learn that they are wildly unintelligent, arrogant, unapologetic, and completely misguided. Herzog knows this, and herein lies the limitless genius of one of the best filmmakers that has ever lived.

Early in the film, Herzog says to Perry (off camera, he is never on screen in the film), “I don’t have to like you, but you are a human being, and no human being deserves to be killed.” By telling the audience this, Herzog makes his stance on the death penalty very clear, but we soon learn that that matters little. What matters is the act of listening. Observing. More than any current documentary filmmaker, Herzog is capable of letting his subjects reveal themselves by doing very little. His questions are never accusatory, his editing never chooses sides. He is an observer, first and foremost.
Jason Burkett 
And what he observes in Into the Abyss is nothing short of remarkable.  Here, Herzog discovers a subsection of America (that of the white trash population) that certainly has his interest piqued. Aside from Perry and Burkett, he observes a host of characters that knew and loved and detested Perry and Burkett. I won’t reveal what is said in the interviews, but it’s important to reveal how Herzog gets them to say it.

Herzog is the only filmmaker that can ask a question like, “Tell me about an encounter with the squirrels,” and evoke a shocking emotional response. He does this by asking, then shutting the hell up. He doesn’t interrupt, he just let’s his camera roll, long after the subject is finished responding. It is those moments that make a Herzog film so touching and poignant.
Herzog filming Into the Abyss
Werner Herzog is one of my favorite filmmakers, second only to Ingmar Bergman. He has a prolific filmography of both documentaries and feature films, yet each one is unique, interesting, and often breathtaking. Into the Abyss is the second remarkable documentary he’s released this year; a fine accomplishment for any filmmaker, let alone one who’s going to be 70 next year.

Often times, while watching a movie that disturbs us, we remind ourselves that, “It’s just a movie.” I had to do that a few times during Into the Abyss, not because the content is graphic (the film is PG-13) but because everything these characters are saying is entirely true. People actually live like this. This is what they were born into. It’s the only life they know. That is far more disturbing to me than anything I’d find in a horror film. A-


  1. Oh yes yes yes I cannot WAIT to see this movie. The second it comes out here I am going to get it! Sounds absolutely brilliant. There is a similar documentary from the 90s, about the prostitute/serial killer Aileen Wuornos that is quite shocking. The film features interviews with her in the days before she is killed, and the things she says are quite terrifying. I loved that documentary, and I'm sure I'll love this one too.

  2. Oh yeah, Nick Broomfield has some serious balls on him. I liked both of his docs on Wuornos. I really think you'll dig Into the Abyss.