Into the Abyss is the best film about capital punishment since Krzysztof Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Killing. Kieslowski chose to give as little information into his killer’s past and motivations as possible as a tool for focusing more on the punishment and less on the crime. Into the Abyss makes sure that we are privy to as much specific information about a crime that started out as a car theft and pointlessly took three innocent lives. It forces us to make up our own minds.
A Short Film About Killing is known as one of the most brutal anti-capital punishment films of all time, even though the film fairly objectively shows the violent murder of a cab driver and the execution that follows it. We’re not entirely sure where Kieslowski stands on this issue, but Herzog makes it clear within the first five minutes of his documentary that he doesn’t support the death penalty. “But that doesn’t mean I have to like you”, Herzog tells death row inmate Michael Perry.
However, this doesn’t lead him to sugarcoat the exposition of the murders one bit. The film quickly introduces us to Perry, seemingly calm and collected only a couple of days away from his execution. Herzog then takes a good chunk of time to show us the details of the crime with the dry attention of a police procedural. He knows that a sheriff objectively describing us this atrocious triple homicide step-by-step will be more effective than a dramatic or preachy approach.
In an unusual move, Herzog does not provide his trademark poetic voice-over narration to his film and chooses to let his interview subjects provide the commentary. We hear equally from the incarcerated perpetrators and the family of the victims. Both sides unravel tragic stories within their own rights. The victims are of course grieving the pointless loss of their loved ones. But on the other side, the father of one of the perpetrators, who’s also in prison, laments that those people might have been alive right now if he had been there for his son instead of spending his life in prison.
The most effective scene shows an ex-executioner unrelated to the case. He recounts the story of how something suddenly snapped in his head after executing a woman and decided to never step foot inside an execution room again. “The government has no right to decide who lives and who dies”, he states with teary eyes. But Herzog does not let us get away with that easy solution. He immediately cuts to one of the victim’s daughter who confesses that she felt a huge weight lifted from her shoulders the day Perry died and how much more at peace she feels now.
No matter where you stand on this issue, Into the Abyss is a powerful documentary that will be hard to forget for a long time.
Into the Abyss is available on Netflix Instant and home video.