It’s more than upsetting to think that there’s a great number of people that only see prolific filmmaker Werner Herzog as an eccentric filmmaker, with a “funny way” of saying things and a category of films all his own. We can’t lie, they’re not entirely wrong, and it can’t be denied that his dynamism and bizarre experiences are basically why internet memes were conceived. But we’d hope that the artist wasn’t completely seen as a cartoon (even if his recent casting as a villain in a Tom Cruise vehicle makes that line of thinking onerous) and that his work was properly considered. Aside from the fact that he’s made very fine movies in his lifetime even without the quirky flourishes (“Nosferatu the Vampyre” is aurally frightening while “Fitzcarraldo” is sincere and extremely moving) his aberrant perspective gives his ideas a unique beauty. Take the case of “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” a film with a fascinating yet History Channel-worthy subject and a rather clinical delivery that is saved by inquiries into albino alligators and Herzog’s amusing dialogue with interviewees. He continues this behavior for “Into the Abyss,” a documentary focusing on a death-row inmate that could’ve followed the standard tropes but instead goes for something more poignant.
In the early aughts, Texans Michael James Perry and Jason Burkett broke into a gated community to steal an acquaintance’s car. What sounds like a buddy-comedy premise is unfortunately more grim: their acquisition of the automobile came at the expense of three lives, including fifty-year-old Sandra Stotler, the owner of the car, who was making a batch of cookies before the men infiltrated her home. Perry and Burkett escaped but were caught after a violent shoot out with the police, leaving Perry slapped with the death penalty while Burkett, after a heartfelt plea to the jury by his father/jail mate, received a life sentence. In the film, Herzog has a sit down with both of the prisoners plus a myriad of others — family and friends of the deceased, an officer that dealt with the crime, Burkett’s father and wife, former head of Texas’s capital punishment program Fred Allen — in an attempt to better understand not only the impact of their misconduct or the (il)logic of capital punishment, but to explore the human condition by prying into unrelated anecdotes that reveal sides and complexities of the people involved that would’ve been ignored by a less thoughtful helmer.
There’s an eerie atmosphere over the entire picture, whether it’s a silent POV walk through the Stotler house (revealing the lumps of cookie dough on a baking sheet) or the too-hyper Perry bouncily answering questions on the screen. The filmmaker is often very direct with his questions (his first question to death row member is “How are you?”), but he also has a tendency to veer off-topic and engage in actual conversation with his subjects as opposed to the dry Q&A sessions that often populate these kinds of documentaries. The detours, such as Perry complaining about a terrible childhood canoe trip or Herzog pressing someone to talk about his arm tattoo, seem like nothing but asides to the people spilling them. But isolated, these are pure life moments, the minor details and happenings that somehow make up who we are. The filmmaker celebrates the tales, creating a very interesting tone by finding warm stories within a grim topic.
But don’t be fooled — he’s not exactly pitying these people (though he is adamantly opposed to the death penalty, something he continually brings up) but exhibiting life at its purest. We won’t say that he’s judgmental, but he doesn’t shy away from rather questionable quotes or decisions, successfully displaying all facets of every person he interviews (a feat in itself given the number of people he talks to in such a short running time). In one sequence, the elder Burkett explains that he has been in jail for nearly all of his son’s life, and Jason himself laments his parent’s absence, expressing interest in starting a family while essentially vowing to be a better patriarch to his future kin. By this, we assume he means that he’ll have kids at 59 when he’s released from confinement. However, a little later in the movie, his wife (whom, we should note, he met through her work on his case) unveils her pregnancy happily. We’re left here on a somber note, with the imprisoned Jason making the exact mistake his dad did and none the wiser. The talkative Herzog lets this moment speak for itself.
Those hoping for something akin to the albino alligator sequence in ‘Cave’ will be disappointed, as Herzog hones his offbeat sensibilities solely into the dialogues with those involved in the crime. It’s a shame, too, because there are plenty of moments that he could’ve (and should’ve) dwelled on in the same way he quietly ruminated on those white reptiles or ancient drawings. The officer touring us around the area gives us a quick peek at the stolen car, now riddled with bullet holes and sitting in a police impound lot, explaining that a tree started growing into the bottom of the vehicle. This, along with the disturbing image of the unfinished cookies left out on the Stotler stove, are brilliantly affecting and exactly the kind of inclusions you’d expect from the veteran director. And yet, as soon as he introduces them he’s already moved on. The strength of ‘Abyss’ lies in its interviews, sure, but passing up on these poignant visual moments is a dissapointment. These also could’ve given the movie the necessary variety it lacks, breaking up the admittedly good, but plentiful interviews the filmmaker indulges in.
Still, despite this large oversight, Herzog ultimately manages to take a breed of documentary, which has nestled for too long in its lack of ambition, in a different direction. He comes out the other side with a deep, uncomfortable, oddly-toned rumination on life — both pleasing enough to those who enjoy the standard truTV offerings and others interested in munching on a bit more substance. This writer is kind of baffled at the film’s lukewarm reception (some reviews seem a little too critically vicious); yes, compared to his mostly fantastic resume “Into the Abyss” seems relatively minor. But evaluated on its own strengths and merits it’s an absolutely worthy film, containing subtle insights into various facets of mortality. Apparently the German director has more of these on his plate. We say bring’em on. [B]