These days, it feels like every other movie hitting theaters is “Based on a True Story.” The advertising campaign for such films has become so familiar that filmmakers are getting bolder and bolder in their claims. “A True Story,” some read. I’m wary of such marketing schemes, to say the least.
But if you want to encounter a true story - I mean so true it hurts - then you need to see Werner Herzog's latest documentary, Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life. There is something raw and strikingly human about everything Herzog has done - from Aguirre, Wrath of God up until now.
Many people were first turned on to Herzog’s documentary style after seeing 2005’s Grizzly Man, an incredible documentary featuring the eccentric Timothy Treadwell, a bear enthusiastic who spent most of his life living among the Grizzlies in the Alaskan wilderness. While Into the Abyss is an entirely different film, it nevertheless embodies the raw passion and fullness of Herzog’s approach to filmmaking.
The story centers around a triple homicide committed by two men, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett. Perry is on death row awaiting his execution and Burkett is facing forty years to life. Perry claims to be a born again Christian, and although he confessed to the crime when taken into custody, he now denies everything. In a startling moment, he calmly explains that he does not fear his coming execution. “I tell people I’m either going home or I’m going home,” he says, paraphrasing a common Christian sentiment of the afterlife and heaven.
To me, the best documentaries resist the urge to become polemics. Despite Herzog’s statement in the film that he morally disagrees with the death penalty, the film is less about the question of justified execution and more about the sanctity of human life. Naturally, the two are inseparable on some level; however, Herzog is more concerned with creating a mosaic of interviews that piece together not just the night in question, but also the characters and lives of these men. Murderers, yes, but still men.
Into the Abyss invites friends, family, enemies, executioners, pastors, and police officers to have their voice heard. Whether it is in defense of human life or in support of fatal consequences, the film - on the whole - is telling a story of life, though in doing so, it must also discuss four deaths: the three murders and the one execution.
Herzog’s only weakness, to my mind, is an overcommitment to his German formalist roots. The documentary contains a strict five act structure, which is interesting given Shakespeare’s As You Like It - and “All the World’s a Stage.” Surely Herzog was alluding to the five acts of a man’s life, and how too many of the people in the film encountered lives ended much too soon. There is a sympathy and a soul to this film that rises above aesthetic concerns; its formalistic elements become less important when considering the weight of the subject matter and the passion of the filmmaking.
This is a film so good that it’s crippling. When I sit down to write about a movie I’ve seen, sometimes it comes incredibly easy. When I wrote the review for The Descendants, the themes and message were so vivid and clear to me that it rolled off without a hitch. Something like Into the Abyss, however, is so chock-full of images and thematic explorations that I didn’t know what to choose. The sanctity of life, the importance of education, the tragic breakdown in the modern family. Where to even begin approaching something so replete with analytic possibilities?
I’ll admit, there is a polemic in this film, and sad as it is for me to say, some will find it upsetting. This is a film which counters the capital punishment in a sensitive but overt way. However, the heart of Into the Abyss is a subtle and strained hope for humanity. In the midst of a terribly emotional and challenging situation, after a film which leaves you restless and exhausted, it is clear that Herzog is seeking the silver lining. Not spiritual redemption necessarily, but a hope that here - in this life - we can do our part to promote life’s great sanctity: in our homes, our community, every aspect of our being.
The consequences of reconsidering how we value human life in our courts, homes, and prisons are far-reaching. This is not just about the death penalty, but about how we treat one another. How we love and how we help and how we show compassion. For the life of Michael Perry, there is no turning back. He is gone from this world.
But for the lives of all remaining, there is a hope. There is a chance to turn back, to rethink, to start fresh. That is a hope worth considering, and this is a film worth seeing. I don’t hesitate to say that this documentary possesses the capacity to change lives. I don’t say this loosely, the way some do. I am sincerely convinced that every blue moon, a movie is made which can have a lasting impact on the lives of its viewers - past weeks, months, and years. Into the Abyss can change the way people think about their and others’ existence, and that is a powerful potential. Perhaps the most powerful of all potentials with which art is endowed.
Watch the trailer: