At the beginning of Into the Abyss, Werner Herzog's stentorian Bavarian accent asks priest Richard Lopez about being the chaplain to the execution of death row prisoners; in a roundabout way, Mr. Lopez's answer involves encounters with squirrels. Squirrels aren't in the same league as the albino crocodiles in Mr. Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams or the iguanas in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. But then Into the Abyss is more restrained and less esoteric than either, and likely to be one of the high-water marks in the German director's 21st century renaissance, along with his strongest, finest documentary in his current golden run of non-fiction work.

     A case study of a senseless 2001 triple homicide in a small town 30 miles outside Houston, committed by two teenagers from the "wrong side of the tracks", Into the Abyss was born from a television project about the death penalty in America - four-part serial On Death Row, aired on Investigation Discovery in March 2012 - but was spun out as a standalone theatrical feature after the director became haunted by the trail of suffering left behind by Michael Perry and Jason Burkett. Though Mr. Herzog is clearly against the death penalty - claiming it's the only reason he has not taken American citizenship - the film is neither denunciation nor screed; rather, a chillingly forensic retracing of the circumstances of the crime and of its consequences, assembled by the director as slyly damning study of American social tensions and a level-headed look at the human cost of crime and inequality.

     Mr. Burkett was sentenced to life, Mr. Perry to death, and Mr. Herzog had 30 minutes to interview each of them in 2010, a week before the execution was due to take place; that footage is placed at the core of the film, interspersed with period archival footage from the police archives and contemporary interviews, but are in no way its centre, especially given the shifting nature of their statements. That honour falls to the testimony of the victims' surviving family members, to former death row prison guard Fred Allen, who has since become a committed anti-death-penalty activist, and of Mr. Burkett's father Delbert, a convicted criminal serving a jail sentence across the road from his son and who blames himself for his son's deeds. Harrowingly intense, as is Mr. Herzog's custom, despite its soberly judged pace and poise, Into the Abyss says more about heartland America, with no trace of prejudice and an open-eyed, lucid humanism, than a thousand reality shows or special news reports ever could.

Director, Werner Herzog; cinematography (colour), Peter Zeitlinger; music, Mark Degli Antoni; editor, Joe Bini; producer, Erik Nelson (Creative Differences Productions and Skellig Rock Productions, in association with Spring Films, Werner Herzog Film and More4), USA/United Kingdom/Germany, 2011, 107 minutes.
     Screened: IndieLisboa 2012 advance screener, Lisbon, April 21st 2012. 


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