Space and time precluded a review in this space last week of Werner Herzog's Into the Abyss. Herzog's fervent fans surely rushed out to see this over the weekend, but for those who need coaxing, let me urge you to do the same in the limited time left for this title.
To be sure, the subject—capital punishment—is a well-worn one, and as such, an unusual departure for a filmmaker who specializes in fantastic journeys. Here, the man whose 40-plus-year filmmaking career has taken him to Antarctica, Alaska, Africa and the Amazon ventures into a bleak strip of Texas—specifically Huntsville and Conroe, two dismal towns located 30 miles apart on I-45.
Huntsville has been the setting of enough movies—mostly documentaries—that you might expect it to have its own film commission. However, what draws filmmakers to the town isn't its natural beauty or architectural marvels. Instead, it's the home to the headquarters of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Several prisons are there, including the Huntsville Unit, which contains the death house that has seen the execution of 477 people since 1982. Steve James made a documentary there, called At the Death House Door, and Steve Earle and Merle Haggard, among others, have written songs about the town's largest employer.
With Into the Abyss, Herzog steps squarely into a dark corner of Americana. Poverty, illiteracy and violence shadow the lives of his subjects, starting with 28-year-old Michael Perry, who is days away from being executed for an utterly senseless triple murder he committed in Conroe with an accomplice in 2002. After asking Perry to wipe down his side of the glass partition, Herzog warns the young man that he's there to try to understand the machinery of state-sanctioned killing, not to be his friend. Still, Herzog proves to be an adept, sympathetic interviewer, gaining the trust of Perry and two other convicts in the brief time he's given. Memorably, he extracts an emotional interview from Delbert Burkett, former college football player, drug addict, inmate and father of Perry's accomplice, who also is incarcerated nearby.
On the outside, Herzog talks to relatives and associates of the criminals and victims, and also to two death house workers who are anguished by the responsibility of being among the last people the condemned prisoners see. Herzog is firmly against the death penalty, citing the Nazi legacy of his native Germany. Through these interviews, and through a retracing of the crime spree using archival police videos—set to a searing score by Mark Degli Antoni—Herzog builds a portrait of pain. Violent crime and violent justice spread hurt everywhere.
In a visit to the UNC campus earlier this fall, David Simon, creator of The Wire, argued that the United States has effectively declared war on the poor. The logic is this: These undereducated, unemployable people are surplus to this country's requirements. But instead of trying to improve their lives, we simply lock them up if they step out of line. If it weren't for the efforts of inquisitive journalists and conscience-wracked reformers like Sister Helen Prejean and the Rev. Carroll Pickett, among too few others, these people would be killed in backcountry prisons without any of us noticing.
Into the Abyss is only one document in a long tradition of American journalism that tries to shed light on the inhumane way we treat our poor and dispense justice. Although Herzog's film is being pitched as a glimpse into the soul of a condemned man, it's really an effective, pitiless look into a bigger killer: us.