Werner Herzog never enters the frame during his latest eccentric nonfiction foray, “Into the Abyss,” but the director’s phantom presence is the star of the show. Herzog is heard on the other side of the camera; he’s occasionally visible as a reflection in a glass divider when speaking with his incarcerated subjects. It’s a conflict that haunts, and eventually holds down, this curious look at a young Texan man on death row and the fallout of the grisly murders he likely committed 10 years ago.
In recent years, there have been movies that happen to be directed by Herzog and there have been bonafide Herzog movies. Narrative ventures like “Rescue Dawn” and “Bad Lieutenant” possess Herzogian flourishes, but in “Grizzly Man” and “Encounters at the End of the World” (and even, to a lesser extent, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”), Herzog’s amusingly colorful voiceover ruminations provide the dreamlike logic behind everything onscreen. “Into the Abyss” was launched as part of a still-developing miniseries for Investigation Discovery; the movie announces itself as a study of prisoners on death row. In reality, its trajectory is the story of one death-row prisoner, along with an accomplice sentenced to life and the characters populating their world.
Herzog litters “Into the Abyss” with engaging subjects and ideas, but it meanders; the only constant is the palpably grim atmosphere. Subtitled “A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life,” Herzog’s follow-up to “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” contains a similar tendency to ask plenty of questions and seek fewer answers.
Using a chapter-based structure, Herzog assembles the details behind the 2001 murders of a 50-year-old woman and two teenagers in Huntsville, Texas. The acts were allegedly carried out by 19-year-olds Michael James Perry and Jason Burkett for the outrageous purpose of jacking a fancy car. Herzog alternates between interviews with Perry eight days before his execution and the comparatively levelheaded Burkett, whose own father remains behind bars at the prison across the street.
Herzog’s not particularly interested in their guilt or innocence. Assembling a surreal and intermittently engaging collage about life’s fragile nature, he chats with the victims’ relatives as well as a death row priest and a former administrator of lethal injection. Dry humor and quirky observations abound: A local who survived a near-death encounter with one of the convicted felons recalls how he came to appreciate his life, but the filmmaker is more interested in the survivor’s calluses as evidence of his honest working life. When Burkett’s father screws up the timeline of his son’s sentencing, getting the release wrong by 100 years, Herzog turns the blooper into a swift observation about the way prison life exists out of time.
Cobbled together out of a few interviews in a relatively short period of time, “Into the Abyss” has the feeling of a rush job. Then again, the masterful “Grizzly Man” famously came together in under two weeks. The appeal of Herzog’s documentaries has less to do with their technical refinement than the combined strength of his subjects and his ability to pontificate on their significance. “Into the Abyss” has a few moments when this alignment works out: The recollections of former capital punishment supervisor Fred Allen build to an unexpectedly lyrical finale, as does the testament of Burkett’s wife, who tells a lavish story about spotting a rainbow that proved her lover’s innocence.
Unfortunately, these moments occur at odd intervals, resulting in a jumble of anecdotes and half-formed ideas. Herzog actively avoids the best material at his disposal, openly expressing disinterest in investigating the crime, allowing the late Perry’s expression of innocence to go unquestioned. Perry’s written defense, which can be found with a simple google search, suggests a reason for contesting his fate beyond a simple moral standpoint. Herzog would rather listen to the 28-year-old talk about a boating trip in Florida. It’s the rare case where that distinctive Bavarian accent and the playful philosopher in possession of it actually turns into an imposition.
criticWIRE grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Already set for release by Sundance Selects, “Into the Abyss” is too bleak and controversial to do the outstanding business that “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” continues to perform, but Herzog’s brand should propel it to solid numbers in limited release and especially on VOD.