Much has already been written about "Into the Abyss," Werner Herzog's humanistic gaze into the dark heart of capital punishment in a Texas town. But let me join in the chorus of effusive praise.
After intially seeing the movie in Toronto, I debated a while about the fact that the film surprisingly glosses over the dimensions and motivations of the central killer–a boyish man with a goofy smile. But "Into the Abyss" offers so many honest, uncensored interviews of loss and transformation that it doesn't seem to matter. And final testimony by a former death-house chief makes a more convincing argument against the death penalty than anything I've ever seen. Book-ended by discussions about rabbits and hummingbirds, it's Herzog's most profound meditation on death and life in years.
As I contemplate the film more, and plan on seeing it a second time after it opens in theaters Friday, I have to say it's important to realize that Herzog is not after questions of guilt or culpability, but rather, the legacy of the crime and the psyches of the perpetrators, the victims and both of their families.
It's hard to imagine a film about the death penalty getting sizable ticket sales in today's universe, but so far, the film has nearly unanimonus positive reviews–with only one dissenter, the L.A. Times' Betsey Sharkey so far–who claims the film's "understatement is ultimately its undoing," which I think misses the point, entirely. Herzog teases out powerful messages about survival, hope and regret in the most quiet pauses of his interviewees.