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'The State of Texas wants to kill me'
Dharmendra Singh7 June 2012
He's taken us into a forgotten cave; alongside bears; to the end of the world; and now Werner Herzog takes us straight into the mind of a madman, in a documentary about what causes people to kill and what society's attitude to such people should be.

Herzog concentrates on just one case, which is more than enough to make his points. Although he doesn't appear on screen, Herzog's voice is important. He dons the role of interviewer, which I believe contributes to the film's power. He asks very precise questions, persists when necessary, but does so in a very innocent, nonchalant way, sometimes even cracking a joke with his subject, who is usually an emotional wreck. And why not? They give more of themselves to someone who they feel is on their side, and we get an insight that is much more accurate than it otherwise could have been.

Michael Perry was a boy when he was convicted of killing a nurse and suspected of killing two youths in 2001. The state of Texas executed him eight days after the film's release. His accomplice to the latter murders, Jason Burkett, received a life sentence. These and other relevant people, such as family members and prison officials, are interviewed to gain a broad range of views on what has always been a difficult political and moral topic.

Documentaries tend to stand back from their topics; Herzog gets right up under their nose. At times I felt he was oblivious to his audience, as though trying to satisfy his own curiosity. And that's why he has always been highly respected: his selfishness is the key to his charity.

All interviews are incredibly moving, not just because almost all involve tears, but because I felt that interviewees had nothing else to reveal and what they did reveal was utterly sincere. This docu-drama uses actual police footage of the crime scenes which, when accompanied by an austere soundtrack, gives the film a sombre, eerie tone.

There's no doubt about it: the crimes were heinous. Both Perry and Burkett blamed each other. Both denied involvement. What's clear is that the crimes were unprovoked and victims perished needlessly. (We're led to believe that people were murdered for the sake of a red sports car.)

Although Herzog states unequivocally that he is anti-capital punishment ('I don't think human beings should be executed. Simple as that'), he never proselytises. He produces an equal account of the merits and pitfalls of state-sponsored execution and, like any objective filmmaker, allows his audience the final say.
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Engrossing, sobering look into the dramatics of death
chaos-rampant18 March 2012
You know and value Herzog because he's one of few these days who can offer a glimpse of cosmologic infrastructure. The wheels and chains that move the world beneath the stories we make up to describe it. What he does, is that he frames chaotic nature where it has a story to tell - say a man living with bears, or an island about to explode - builds this as opera while maintaining the illusion of spontaneous life, blurring document with fiction, then uses this to bring to the surface an image that explains the madness of those stories. A boat being tugged over a hill, as pure as this.

The story here is about death-row inmates awaiting execution in a Texas penitentiary, structured so that we absorn not just the heinous, meaningless crime but the broader world that leads up to it, allows it to happen, is dependent on and reflects it. Broken homes, unemployment, casual street violence, Herzog provides enough background detail to ground this in a larger systemic failure: so-called civilized society as only a facade of chaotic nature left to seed.

As with Caves the previous year, the film is talky, dependent on people being able to conjure an experience we only have a handful of images for; the crime scene, dried blood still spattered on the walls, the quietly ominous-looking execution chamber, the prison cemetery lined with crosses of the executed.

And this is the whole point. Here is a story of immense, sobering power, interviewing a man who will be dead by Monday, but of course Herzog cannot film the moment, much to the chagrin of many. He has to tell a story around it.

No, the point is that we only have words, memories, stories to say. Many of these are recounted in the film. The execution itself is pieced together from objects and testimonies, very much like we would process a memory. But these stories are still powerful enough to decide life and death. Two were convicted for the crime, and going beyond who pulled the trigger, since both planned for it, only one was sentenced to die.

This is what is so sobering to me; one man just had a better story to tell the court, more touching drama to explain his being, and we get to note this in the film for a clear effect, he's just more agreeable to listen to, appears more responsible, more level-headed and contrite, whereas the other is just a little wacky. Asked about a story, he blurts out something about monkeys and camp. Herzog himself is markedly disinterested in him, whereas a lot of time is devoted to the man who isn't going to die, a long soliloquy by his guilt-wracked father - serving life in the same prison - that we presume is as sentimental as he pled to the court with it.

The bitter, hard-to-swallow truth is that this guy's life is simply better movie material, makes for a better story, and this decides life - notice too his wife's sappy story about their first encounter, misty-eyed soap as it is.

So even though the film seems more streamlined and ordinary for Herzog, talky opposed to visually primal, it is as pure as he ever delivered, perhaps without himself knowing it.

The whole system we have devised to support life, call it state, society, civilization, is not an infallible, impartial machine but hinges on the bias of storytelling and emotion. The law is arbitrary, equally chaotic as what is meant to organize. At the bottom of that, there is only time and emptiness.

Observant Herzog fans will note that he used this intertitle - 'Time and Emptiness' - for the closing segment of his Buddhist documentary Wheel of Time. See if you can spot the powerful connection between these two, the floating worlds and ritual they portray.
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Well Made But Lacks Punch
bdgill123 June 2012
In Conroe, Texas, 2001, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett broke into the home of an acquaintance, Jason Stotler, in the hopes of stealing a new car. When their plan began to unravel, Perry shot and killed Stotler's mother. After dumping the body, they then killed Stotler and another friend in order to regain access to the house inside of a gated community they had been locked out of. Shortly thereafter, the duo was arrested after a haphazard shootout and brought to justice. Perry was sentenced to death, Burkett to life in prison. With Perry's execution right around the corner, filmmaker Werner Herzog journeyed to the maximum security prison in Huntsville, Texas in order to interview the culprits, get the details of the case, and have a look at the concept of the death penalty.

Perhaps the preeminent voice in documentary filmmaking, Herzog has spent the majority of his illustrious career crafting his approach and that shines through once again here. What I love about Herzog's documentaries is that there's never any question as to how he feels about his subject matter and yet you never feel as if he's forcing it down his throat. At the outset of Into the Abyss he states (off-camera) that he is against the death penalty and at times you can tell that his film is sliding toward his side of the argument. A very compelling portion of the film involves Herzog's discussions with a man who spent his entire career strapping the condemned to a gurney until a series of events led him to jump to the other side of the argument. Still, however, Herzog allows the audience to judge for themselves, choosing to let the camera roll while laying out the facts. My impression is that Herzog would like to start a dialogue concerning the matter rather than shame proponents of the death penalty into submission.

At the same time, Into the Abyss pulls no punches in its portrayal of both Perry and Burkett. While both profess their innocence, Herzog quietly points out the holes in their respective stories and makes it clear that there is virtually no evidence to support their claims. These two were morons with a history of bad and violent behavior who finally escalated their actions. Perhaps their greatest mistake was being so stupid as to believe they could get away with their crimes when clearly neither one of them had the mental capacity to outsmart a brain damaged dog, let alone a team of police detectives. The film uses splices of the videos investigators shot at the crime scene and accentuates the footage with interviews with the detective in charge of the case and the family members of the victims. It is a dark light that is shed on Perry and Burkett and Herzog makes no attempt to turn them into the martyrs they would have you believe they are.

The only real issue I had with Into the Abyss is that it simultaneously tries to cover too much ground and doesn't reach quite far enough. Herzog takes the time to highlight a fairly extensive interview with Burkett's father, himself in prison, in an effort to illuminate Burkett's difficult childhood but then doesn't do anything with this information. It seems as if the film goes halfway toward building a bit of sympathy for at least Burkett, if not Perry, and then abandons the idea. There are also a handful of interviews that don't seem to serve much of a purpose. At the same time, because of the nature of how Herzog shot the film, his "turn on the cameras and see what happens" style, there are times when Into the Abyss seems a bit purposeless. There's no great statement made and again, while I appreciate that he didn't take to the heavy-handed preaching tactic used too often in these documentaries, this leaves the film devoid of a lasting impression. It's a good film and one that is certainly worth watching if for no other reason than the conversation it could lead to but it lacks the punch that I would have expected it to display.

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A look into the lives surrounding a Texas execution
jaoneal17 March 2012
Herzog's work may lend itself to interpretation more than most. And while it may just be a quibble of emphasis, I would not, as the other two reviewers here have, say this is essentially a documentary about 'capital punishment'. Just as I would not say "grizzly man" was really a documentary about bear attacks. Herzog lets it be known he doesn't approve of the death penalty, but mostly, like most Herzog documentaries, this just struck me as a portrait of (as another reviewer put it well) the "ill-fated".

Certainly, if you go into this thinking you're going to get Michael Moore style anti-death penalty agitprop, you're going to be disappointed. This is a series of interviews with a Texas death row inmate scheduled for imminent execution (an inmate Herzog has characterized in interviews as a "truly frightening" human being) and the lives of some of those either the case, or the Texas Death Penalty system generally, have touched upon. It is probably the least sensationalistic account of its sort put on film. And for that alone, Herzog deserves praise.

Having lived in Houston for many years and knowing this area just north of it pretty well, I can say Herzog is able convey a lot about the area and its people, through the lens of this horrific act, very well.

Well, once more, what is it about, if not capital punishment.... I think Herzog in a related context (his "On Death Row" documentary series) may have put it best when an attorney he was interviewing noted 'we all have a need to humanize' and rationalize these people who have done terrible things, and Herzog stopped them to say "I don't humanize them. I don't want to humanize. They simply are human beings". And that's kind of how I saw 'into the abyss'. It's not an attempt to rationalize or humanize a triple-murderer, nor is it an attempt rationalize, demonize, or humanize state sanctioned execution. It's just portrait of a piece of life as it is now lived.
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Haunting Herzog
DamnYouGoogle18 March 2012
Into the Abyss is Herzogs most haunting piece since his 1979 remake of Nosferatu and to me, it would appear to be his most personal work to date. Herzog has always been an outspoken warrior against capitol punishment, so I assumed this would be preachy, overstated, and direct. To my surprise this is one of the most understated documentaries on death row inmates and those around them I have ever had the pleasure of watching.

Centering around the homicides committed by two Texas youths over a car in the early 2000's and the consequences felt by all the people involved, Into the Abyss isn't about guilt or innocence, nor is it about wrong or right. Into the Abyss is about staring the reality of it all in the face.

Herzog leaves no stone unturned as he interviews the perpetrators, the victims families, the wife and father of one of the prisoners, the prison chaplain, a series of acquaintances, the police captain, and a retired prison guard that was once the modern day equivalent of the town executioner. None of whom dwell on the deaths of those killed or the upcoming death of Micheal Perry (the inmate that was given death) but life after the events. How their worlds were effected is the topic and even though Herzog states clearly he opposes the death penalty he never harps on it.

The subjects that are interviewed were obviously hand picked with care and it all amounts to an eerie retrospect on how the world misses the big picture when it comes to taking the life of another for crimes they have committed. Easily the most jaw dropping documentary of the young 2010's decade. I cant think of another film that got me so emotionally involved while seemingly dancing around the main subject. Herzog has done it again, but I cant call it triumphant. No, Into the Abyss isn't a triumph at all. It is an epic tragedy that should be watched by those both pro and anti capitol punishment.
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Death and life
Ben Larson16 April 2012
I have seen many Herzog films: Encounters at the End of the World, Rescue Dawn, Grizzley Man, and Aguirre: The Wrath of God, just to name a few. I have always been fascinated with his work.

Herzog documentaries are notable for using locals instead of professionals to give it a ring of truth. It makes for a more interesting story.

This film was made 8 days before Michael Perry, a man on death row convicted of murdering Sandra Stotler, a fifty-year-old nurse, was to be executed. He was suspected, but never charged, in two other murders which occurred in Conroe, Texas, with his accomplice Jason Burkett. Perry was convicted eight years earlier of the October 2001 murder, apparently committed in order to steal a car for a joyride. Perry denies that he was responsible for the killings, blaming Burkett (also appearing in the film) who was convicted of the other two murders. Burkett, who received a lesser life sentence for his involvement, likewise blames Perry.

The tales of all involved, especially the inmate's father, and the warden, were fascinating.
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Hearts of Darkness
EephusPitch17 November 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Werner Herzog's new film is a meditation on what it is that makes us kill; us, as in the struggling, sub-literate underbelly of Conroe, Texas, and us, as in a society which evidently believes that putting inmates to death will somehow absolve us of the guilt of breeding a society in which three people will give up their lives for a red Chevy Camero. In a nice moment of Herzogian "ecstatic truth", it is revealed that a tree grew through the chassis of the Camaro while it was parked in a police impound lot.

Herzog relentlessly interviews the two men convicted of the crime, Jason Burkett, who will be eligible for parole in 2041, and Michael Perry, who was executed by lethal injection eight days after Herzog interviewed him. He also interviews the surviving family members of the victims, the death row chaplain, the captain of the team of law enforcement officers tasked with preparing those to be executed, and some of those who had shared Perry and Burkett's environment at the time of the crimes. Perhaps most perplexing is the interview with Burkett's wife, who makes it clear that she is not a "death row groupie", despite stating that she was in love with Burkett before she ever met him. The interviews shed light on a society in which I suspect I wouldn't last six hours: the brother of one of the victims, who was arrested for parole violations at his brother's funeral; the acquaintance of Burkett's, who hasn't been in trouble with the law, "just the one felony", who Burkett stabbed in the side with a phillips-head screwdriver "about that long", and who learned to read in prison; the surviving relative of two of the victims, who seems to have lost all of her relatives, "and the family dog", to violent death and illness. Burkett and Perry maintain their individual innocence, blaming each other, with Burkett implicating a third man present at their capture, who would appear to be a figment of his imagination.

Every bit as harrowing are the interviews with Burkett's father, a multiple felon who takes responsibility for raising a son like Burkett, and the two prison officials, the chaplain who witters on about not running over squirrels on the golf course, and the prison official who had seen to the wants of those about to die before strapping down their left ankles to the gurney. After presiding at the execution of Karla Fay Tucker, he was essentially haunted by the memory of all those he had strapped down, and wound up quitting his job.

And that is perhaps the question at the heart of Herzog's film: is it more absurd to kill three people for a red Camero, or to kill hundreds of people for an abstraction called "Justice"?
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True Documentation
JoeC34521 August 2012
The art of making a real documentary has become lost in recent years with filmmakers consistently using stylistic editing and asking questions only to prove the point there trying to make. One thing that struck me with "Into The Abyss" by Werner Herzog was how brilliantly he stayed on task of what he was trying to say. He clearly states once that he does not believe in the death penalty.

The thing that impressed me the most was how he was never on screen and only asked honest and pertinent questions to all his interviewees without leading them to the answers he wanted. He probed but always let the person say exactly what they wanted to say. He never tries to excuse or romanticize the crime led the one person he interviewed to death row but is firm in his belief that capital punishment is just as much a sin as the crimes perpetrated by the death row inmates

As I understand it, The United States is one of the last few developed countries that still imposes the death penalty and Texas has the highest rate of death row inmates and the lowest rate of appeals for death row inmates in the nation. While pondering that question you have to ask yourself, "why is that?" is crime being any more deterred by this, I would say no since they still have the highest rate of death row inmates even to this day.

The commentary by the different people that Herzog talks too is extraordinary. The two that I found to be the best were the father Jason Burkett who is also in prison and the man who was once captain of the guard where Perry was to be executed. This mans conclusion on why the death penalty should not be used is perhaps the best and most profound.

Herzog poses no enlightening statement at the end and even provides no commentary minus the questions he asks the people he interviews and this is perhaps the best way he could have approached this subject. He let's the viewer determine for themselves what they want to take away from the evidence he provides.

This is a hard film to review but is a film that should be seen, and the two questions stuck with me even after the film was over, Who has the right to take another life? and, Is there a point where the taking of a life is not a sin?
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A life-affirming rhapsody on the death penalty
In September 2011, two events reignited the death-penalty debate in America.

The first came on the seventh of the month at the Republican Presidential Debates in Simi Valley, California. Texas governor Rick Perry was asked by an NBC News correspondent whether he was able to sleep at night, given that his state had executed 234 inmates during his time in office. Before the question was even finished, the audience broke into rapturous applause, cheering the body count.

Two weeks later came the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia, who had spent 20 years protesting his innocence on death row for killing a security guard in a parking-lot altercation. Nine former witnesses signed affidavits retracting their original statements and claiming they had been coerced by police into identifying Davis. However, in spite of this, and significant pressure from an array of human-rights groups, the Supreme Court refused to overturn Davis's death sentence.

Coincidentally, German filmmaker Werner Herzog's Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life premiered at the Toronto film festival in the weeks between the Californian GOP debate and Davis's execution. The documentary focuses on three murders that took place in a rural Texas town in 2001, for which Jason Burkett and Michael Perry received a life sentence and the death penalty respectively. Due to the film's timeliness, it was rushed for a November release and has now landed on UK screens. Yet while Herzog enters the film making no bones about his opposition to capital punishment, he refuses to exploit his tentative subject for his own political purposes.

From the outset, Herzog has clearly gone to great lengths to avoid the sort of manipulative didacticism popularised by Michael Moore that has blighted mainstream documentary for the past decade. Whereas he might have chosen to focus on cases of questionable guilt in order to make his case, Herzog opts for a series of murders which are straightforward and frighteningly trivial in their motivations. Both Perry and Burkett continue to place blame on each other, but according to a local cop, who talks us through the case in the film's opening minutes, the two young men killed a middle-aged mother and two teenage boys, all in order to steal the woman's red convertible. Interviewing Perry days before his execution, the victim's families and the state officials involved in the lethal injections that take place in Texas - an average of around two per month since 2001 - the film offers a sombre meditation on the barbarism which survives in modern civilised society.

Yet there remains in many of these interviews an aching humanity achieved through the plain spectacle of real people talking about deeply affecting moments in their lives. Their candour brings a distinctly life-affirming quality to film, which Herzog comes dangerously close to ruining by his recurring need to put words into the mouths of his subjects.

With his last project, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which explored the Chauvet caves and the ancient pre-historic paintings that adorn their walls, Herzog was free to rhapsodise as much as he liked. He brings a similar compulsion to impose his own poetic meaning onto the images to Into the Abyss. During one of the film's most heartrending interviews, in which a former state executioner explains the moment he realised he couldn't continue, Herzog asks 'Was this the first time when you felt like yourself?'. Needless to say, the interviewee looks rather nonplussed. In moments like this, Herzog comes across like an aloof auteur shamelessly attempting to envelop his subjects into his own poignant conception of events.

While he abstains from narration and never strays from behind the camera, his unmistakable low drawl is a constant and manipulative presence. Similarly his carving of the film into chapters, complete with such melodramatic titles as 'Time and Emptiness', feels like a needless framework that only compromises the manifold beauty of the film.

With Into the Abyss, Herzog stays true to his word and doesn't allow partisan fingerwagging to distance us from the horror of capital punishment. Unfortunately, his heavy-handed poeticising has much the same effect, interrupting the flow of what is an otherwise gripping and unassuming conversation about the shadowy border between justice and revenge, and the inimitable value of human life.
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necessary filmmaking
carlvdl12 November 2012
Warning: Spoilers
One thing that separates humanity from the rest of the animal kingdom is the fact that we are aware of our own mortality. Those scheduled for execution know not only that they will die but the exact time, place and method of their departure.

While many movies use different tactics to shock and dramatise violence and death, very rarely are we confronted with such an urgent and intimate picture, where Herzog visits the town of Conroe, Texas, to explore the fallout from a triple murder 10 years back.

Police footage offers a glimpse into a night of casual destruction at the hands of Michael Perry, death row inmate scheduled for execution within days, and Jason Burkett, his accomplice serving a life sentence. A woman and two boys become their victims because they are simply barriers in their plan to steal a performance vehicle.

Everyone Herzog interviews appears to be deeply affected by death, be it as a chaplain, victim or executioner. Everyone, that is, except for the perpetrators themselves, who appear equally perplexed concerning their crimes as we are, and for whom death, even their own, is merely an afterthought, a simple matter of fact. Are individuals capable of such detachment sent from another planet, or are they humans just like us? Are all humans afraid of death? Is the delusion of religion merely to mask the realisation that our final day is really the end? 'Into the Abyss' does not seek to explore these questions, but they are never far from the surface.

Toward the end Herzog meets Melyssa, who married Jason after his conviction. That a woman would of her own free will negate any possibility of a healthy, supportive family life and bring a child into the world who's father is a convicted murderer serving a life sentence is another reminder of the strange justice of this world. Life will persist where logic would dictate it should never.

One of the most poignant and revealing interviews is with a retired executioner for the state who participated in the executions of over 120 individuals. For a man who remained professional and detached for so long, he resigned, unable to continue, and now stands against the state sanctioned taking of human life. One can't help but notice the dimly lit, slightly claustrophobic room in which the interview takes place, apparently the room where inmates spend their final hours before being taken to the gurney. The word 'dream' in carved wooden letters appears on the mantelpiece. Will dreams come to me in my eternal sleep? 'Into the Abyss' will most certainly leave few viewers unchanged. A necessary film.
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"Masterful look at punishment by death..."
RShurtz5728 October 2012
I just watched a documentary by the masterful filmmaker, Werner Herzog, Into the Abyss. He does what a great filmmaker can do, change your perception of an issue. The film is not the most pleasant of subjects, a triple slaying of three people, and then the ensuing death by lethal injection of one of the two teenage murderers in the state of Texas. There are many reasons why I was so affected by the film, and I watch a lot of documentaries, the first being that I related so much to the two teenagers who did the killings.

Herzog, the filmmaker, doesn't focus on the trial, rather, he focuses more on the anatomy of the crime, and the way in which each of the characters were affected. He has an amazing sense of place, just as he did with Grizzly Man,he puts the viewer directly into the film by establishing a feel of the surroundings, patiently filming poignant parts of the town where these people where from , so that one can really understand that this could be your neighborhood, your friend, your acquaintance, or even members of your own family. His interview style is unwavering and fearless, in fact, each of these people you felt trusted him completely, from the daughter whose mother was killed, to the father of one of the killers. Even the sheriff who investigated the crime ten years before, had none of the resistance that law enforcement can sometimes have in an interview like this. I'm remiss in not mentioning the interview of the Captain of the team that carried out so many of the executions in Texas, sometimes two a week, until he resigned after the execution of Karla Rae Tucker, the first woman to be executed in Texas since the Civil War. His testimony was powerful, coming from this huge man with the Texas accent, who was changed by that particular execution, and changed his view on capitol punishment, and this after doing it for ten years. He claims the execution of Karla Rae Tucker caused him an introduction to his real self, and as he says near the end of the film, "No one has the right to take another person's life, no matter the circumstances."

In Werner Herzog's film, he doesn't excuse the crimes that they committed, but he does cause the viewer to look and think about the great mountain of destruction that was built even before these two teen killers were born. The one tried to take care of the other one, by taking him in to live with him in a camper. Before that, the boy was living in the trunk of an abandoned car. I think that was what was impressive about the film, that Werner Herzog gave something to this whole situation, and not just to the young man who would die eight days later, but to everyone involved. He gave the other boy's father a chance to seek some kind of redemption, and fight for his son's life, even when he had taken lives himself.

The film made me think of the fragile circumstances that exist for so many kids growing up between a life in prison or on death row. Sometimes, it requires the risky intervention on the part of someone who is actually living Christian principles instead of talking about them.

Herzog is a patient filmmaker. Even the long shots that he chooses too edit into the film are packed full of sub-text. One has to stay open and un-affected by the usual techniques of filmmaking, depending on quick edits and short sound bites. Herzog is a master, and if one is willing to trust him completely, the pay-off is extraordinary.
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Food for thought
cfishy30 July 2012
Warning: Spoilers
It's a well made film and doesn't try too hard to persuade the audience the director's views. Through a series of interviews, it does a good job of describing humans.

There is the death row inmate in complete denial, you can see on his face how he thought he still can get away with something. There is the woman who fell in love with an inmate, you can see how blindly in love with someone she barely touched. There is the father in regret that he was never around because he was always in jail. There is the executioner who eventually snapped. There is the tough guy who showed a glimpse of sorrow. There is another guy who decided to stay out of trouble. There is the victim's families' suffering.

Nothing was answered because that's the reality. I didn't change my mind about death penalty coming out of the movie. But, I got to know some humanity. It's why I watch movies.
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Artificially Spiritual
David Baron (neuFleisch)16 September 2013
This documentary feels lost between a spiritual exploration of the consequences of death and an investigation of the events of a violent crime but fails in both aspects.

I really felt that the film didn't have a true focus and wandered into a plea against the death penalty but you could feel that the filmmaker doesn't understand the American mindset and questioned some of the protagonists with a certain layer of intellectual arrogance.

Herzog didn't seem to emerge himself into the culture of the south, his cold shots of the poor rural areas only seemed to be integrated to showcase the "lower class" status of his protagonists instead of giving a true sense of the culture.

So for a European filmmaker with a completely different cultural background, the subject matter of the death penalty must seem to a certain extend absurd & uncivilized but in the "wild west" inheritance of the American experience, executing a man for justice is embedded for centuries into the mindset of the United States.

Even if his questions seemed to want to probe the emotional state of his protagonists, he didn't seem to really want to understand the "why" the death penalty is considered an acceptable form of justice in the States.

And for that, I believe that this documentary feels judgemental instead of actually a 'document' of an event or of a complex cultural subject matter.
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Into the Unbias. But is that for better or worse?
redeemingtheuneven28 February 2013
This was a difficult one to gage. Let me just start by saying that I don't write many reviews (that will become clear. Gee, I bet you really want to keep reading now, don't you?) and when I do, they're films I'm split down the middle with - that I enjoy to a large degree but also have some problems with. So that's what I'm going to do now; discuss the main flaws as I saw them.

The first 45 minutes or so of 'Into the Abyss' had me rather compelled, guiding us through the crimes themselves, preliminary interviews with those convicted, and really quite touching re-encounters with family members of the victims. A quite traditional introduction into matters of this nature, I thought. But it did take quite a detour and almost made a point to be unbiased. That may sound nonsensical - after all, documentaries are largely there to present us with untampered material and remain objective. However, other than interviews conducted with the deceased's families (namely Lisa Stolter-Balloun and Charles Richardson) and the Lieutenant, I didn't feel like there was really any support for the 'good guys.' You can call it documentation, you can call it rmeoving prejudice, you can call it Herzog doing his job as a filmmaker - but I had a hard time taking what this film gave me: an inherently sympathetic and empathetic viewer.

I would have liked to have seen Herzog push some buttons with the more questionable individuals. I'm talking about Michael Perry and Jason Burkett - two guys who had some quite serious and detrimental cases going against them. Yes, I realise this documentary was not about that; whether they did or didn't do it. Alongside other interviewees, it served more as a platform to discuss capital punishment and how lives can go wayward from poor upbringings and whatnot. But that just didn't make for particularly riveting or insightful conversation, to me. It was intriguing enough, and held that throughout, however had few flashes of real emotional depth that you would expect in a case like this - particularly with Perry and Burkett. Often times, Herzog would strike up what I can only call small talk that felt out of place and actually kind of insulting. I can appreciate the mindset behind that (either it's to ease tension or it's Herzog being Herzog) but am of the opinion that such trivial chatter is unnecessary and even impolite in some instances. Maybe that's all just my warped perception, though.

Herzog ending the film with a nod to the "families of the victims of violent crime" admittedly left a bad taste in my mouth. Not that I think those affected don't deserve the recognition and dedication - they absolutely do - but I would not have thought it to be that simple from this particular project. Apparent as it may have been that Herzog was against the death penalty (he directly addressed this very early on), he made no mention of it in writing at the film's closing? No facts about how many people had been put to death in the most recent year, or anything relating to that? Nothing? Without that, I cannot help but feel the dedication Herzog decided upon was more for show and as a tool of faux-support. Nice of him to put it in there but it just seemed a little forced and loose-ended when he didn't follow it up with or acknowledge the very same capital punishment system that he clearly feels strongly about.

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Herzog's weakest effort
dushyant chaturvedi20 December 2012
Directed by one of my favorite masters of all time, Werner Herzog, Into the Abyss is a documentary which uses a crime and the impending execution of one of its perpetrators to try and answer the question why do people and the government kill? The movie begins with a long dialogue between the director and a priest whose duty is to administer last rites to the prisoners. It becomes clear during the very first sequence that the director is intensely anti-capital punishment. Then this moves towards the crime which was the killing of three people for a particular car and how the case was made against the killers. Herzog, with his sympathetic and German accented tone, expertly interviews the killers, one of whom was executed eight days after talking to him. There are echoes of In Cold Blood in this but they don't really resonate with you. The movie is well intentioned and manages to stir you for a few times. However, it lacks any real punch. There are no great revelations and I thought that the structure of the story telling was a bit convoluted at times as if the editor had f***ed up a bit. There are better documentaries and movies on this subject and two notable mentions have to be the life of David Gale and the Thin Blue Line. This is good cinema but doesn't hold a candle to those great and life changing works of art. For me personally, this is Herzog's weakest effort. But as a documentary it is above average. 3 out of 5
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Almost into it
kosmasp4 May 2012
Another reviewer wrote that Herzog is dancing around the subject. This sentence alone describes one of the major problems of the documentary for me. Herzog who interviews all involved (from family members, to the inmates), does not poke enough when it comes to the criminals itself. While I'm not sure about the death penalty itself (and the most haunting and therefor best moments of the movie come from the interview with an ex prison warden), it would be interesting to really get behind and inside the head of the "subjects".

Still the documentary is more than well done, with Herzog being involved a lot (which means if you don't like him, you will have a problem with the movie) and quite a few interesting bits. Herzog lets both parties say their peace and the viewer has to decide, what he/she thinks is right or wrong themselves.
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A weak insight into a thrilling topic
lattar112 April 2012
I'm not familiar with Werner Herzog or his work, and had never heard of him prior to this film. I started watching 'Into the Abyss' expecting a peak into the life of a death row inmate, as well as hearing the tale of a horrible crime and its back round. I was utterly disappointed. The problem with this film is that it manages to make a story about capital punishment boring. At peak moments Herzog touches some interesting issues, but does not explore them.

In the end I felt unsatisfied, like a big part of the story was wasted. I still think this movie is worth watching, one just must not expect a flaming and intense debate on this matter. This film offers more a general humanitarian view.
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Don't Stare.
The Backseat Director31 March 2012
Whenever you hear the words Death, Row and Documentary in the same sentence, you instantly know the deal – falsely accused white trash is saved by impassioned ninety minute plea of a dedicated filmmaker.

You see, documentary loves the the falsely accused… The system of injustice, of botched investigations, of bent cops, corrupt, careless judges and the 'man' keeping the poor, the black and the mentally ill behind bars where they belong.

But not Werner Herzog. This one-man institution of documentary chucks that formula out the window.

We've been taught to see the well-spoken, smiling man on death row as our beat upon, down- trodden hero, and after opening with this tried and tested device, Herzog yanks us back to the crime scene and the hero's utterly depraved and senseless brutality.

So far, so new, fresh and daring; but then, twenty minutes into what could have been an incredible film, he starts meandering through the wider story, of one of the killer's incarcerated father, whose regret and life-saving courtroom plea proved the difference between life and death row, and of the town full of white trash with their own drunken bar fight war stories. It all gets a bit muddy and unfocused.

For the next hour, it seems to stall, and you start hankering to see more of the killers' interview as, well, that's what sold us the ticket stub after all, but they have neither the screen time, nor the insightful comments, to really deliver on the promise of the premise.

Eventually, in the closing fifteen minutes, we get a chance to really ruminate on the inhumanity of the death penalty and of loss, which ends up being rather ghastly and offering, perhaps, a sigh of relief we didn't have to endure that intensity for the full 106 minutes.

An in-depth study of death row and the death penalty, sadly this is not, and while, admirably, Herzog was trying to do things differently, he really only managed to deliver a strange meandering journey through the trailer trash and gated communities of Smallville, Texas.
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Texas life and death
SnoopyStyle29 October 2016
Filmmaker Werner Herzog does a documentary about Michael James Perry. He's on death row in Livingston, Texas scheduled to be executed in 8 days. He was convicted along with his friend Jason Burkett for a triple homicide. They killed a housewife in her home to steal a car and then killed two young people to get passcode for the community gate. This is not really a whodunit unless you believe Burkett or even Perry. It's not impossible to believe them and there are certainly people willing to do that. This is really about the whole society in general. It is about the victims. It is about the daughter who lost her family. It is about Burkett's father who watches his various family members get incarcerated along with him. It is about the friend and Herzog who is more interested in him learning to read as an adult. It is about the executioner who had to quit. This is quite a tapestry of Texan life.
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Objective documentary on capital punishment
tomgillespie200214 September 2016
In 2001, teenagers Michael Perry and Jason Burkett were arrested and charged with a triple-homicide shortly after an intense shootout with the police. They were convicted of murdering 50-year old nurse Sandra Stotler, her sixteen year old son Adam, and his friend Jeremy Richardson. They shot and killed Sandra with a shotgun in her garage so they could steal her valuable red Camaro, and later murdered the two teenagers to obtain the keys to the gate of their middle-class community estate. As a result, Perry was sentenced to die by lethal injection, and Burkett was given a life sentence.

Just how one culprit can be slated to die while the other gets to spend their life behind bars for the same crime is just one of the many questions raised in Werner Herzog's objective documentary on capital punishment. We meet Perry early on, child-like and God- fearing, just 8 days before he is due to die. During this meeting, Herzog reveals his own feelings about the death penalty (he's strictly against it) and even tells the inmate that he doesn't like him very much, but that he also respects everyone's humanity and point of view. The film is not a condemnation of Death Row, but a meditation, and Herzog simply sits back and allows the story to tell itself through interviews from all sides and sporadic narration.

Although it does cover the crime itself in detail, Into the Abyss is not a re-investigation, but tells the story of the horrifying events back in 2001 juxtaposed with interviews from 2010 to allow us to make up our own mind and absorb the devastating affects such an act of brutality can cause. The most heart-breaking moment comes from the interview with Burkett's father, a prisoner himself, as he comes to terms with his own role in his son's fate. We learn of the events that attributed to his boy's character and eventual destiny, and wonder if society failed him. We then see how the crime left Sandra Stotler's daughter completely alone in life, and wonder why such a monster like Burkett should be allowed to live. You may find yourself discussing the topic in depth afterwards, but on hearing Perry's final words to the victim's families before he was given a lethal dose, I could not bring myself to believe that watching him die would ever bring them inner peace.
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Interesting work by Herzog
pengobox1 February 2016
Warning: Spoilers
What struck me about Into The Abyss was that it wasn't so much a true-crime documentary, but more a thoughtful exploration into one crime and its subsequent consequences. I know that Herzog documentaries aren't always the most objective, but while I was watching Into The Abyss, I didn't get the impression that there was a particular theme or message being pushed at me. At some point, Herzog mentions that he is averse to capital punishment, but this opinion does not dominate the documentary.

One interesting thing that Herzog did was that he presented the interviews in a particular way. One of the very first interviews is of death row inmate, Matthew Perry, and Herzog then delves deeper by questioning law enforcement, relatives of the deceased, friends of the perpetrators, etc. We immediately learn that Perry is sentenced to die in 8 days, though it is not until the very end that he has died via lethal injection as scheduled. This creates an effective yet not jarring or overly distracting shock for the audience. Someone that they had just witnessed living and talking has died. It is strange and sometimes uncomfortable to process, and I think Herzog had this in mind when he finally put together the film.

As a documentary, Into The Abyss was intriguing, engaging, and emotional. It was full of very human interviews; people wept and sighed and stuttered, adding to the realism and the rawness overall. This is not what I would call a "beautiful" film, but it is a film that is thoughtful and well-made. I didn't enjoy this as much as Cave of Forgotten Dreams, but then again, that can be attributed to the difficult subject matter of Into The Abyss.

However, after finishing the movie, I wasn't left with any deeper insight or revelations than when I started. This film is undoubtedly well-made and carefully shot, but not as introspective as some of Herzog's other documentary films. I felt the movie skimmed the surface of what Herzog could have potentially addressed: the criminal justice system, capital punishment, the nature of grief and death, etc, yet in the end Into The Abyss seemed kind of bare. I wish Herzog could have just explored the topic(s) touched in Into The Abyss a bit more; nevertheless, I am looking forward to more of his works.
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shocking and momentous for the simple act of trying to understand
MisterWhiplash6 May 2015
Into the Abyss looks at people on Death Row. This time there's not very much of the 'ecstatic truth' that Herzog is often chasing in the wilds or jungles or in remote continents. This is about Michael Perry, facing death for a triple homicide, and others interviewed in the case, some also on death row, some not.

There are no exacting 'sides' taken - though Herzog clearly states he's against the death penalty, which is important to note. And yet this is far from a polemic, and is something meant to be for all interested audiences, whether you believe the death penalty is a good idea or not for such cases or others.

It's an incisive, disturbing and, by the nature of Herzog's conversational approach (not so much an "Interview" in a strict sense, he also says this) startling and revelatory in the little (and big details, and it's look into this ugly case, which showcases how dumb youth can really spoil a lot of things for people. But, paramountly, how the process of waiting for and about to be executed affects the person about to die, those closest to him, and the victim's families. It's precisely and unforgettably haunting because of how much Herzog looks at people who have looked into the abyss, and whether or not the abyss has looked back at them.
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Confirms my support for the death penalty
southfljb24 October 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Michael Perry was a sociopath. He never took responsibility for the murders,never showed remorse and he got exactly what he deserved. He took three innocent lives because he wanted a car (I guess working for it didn't cross his mind). The bottom line of the story is: Two white trash losers from Texas make the choice to steal two cars from a family, who's son was an acquaintance of theirs. The victims where upper middle class, normal law abiding citizens. Perry and his sidekick methodically and brutally murdered a mother, her son and the son's best friend. They stole the victims cars and went to some redneck bar and gave the other white trash losers joy rides. These two give stupid a new meaning, within a week they are both caught, jailed, tried and convicted. Perry received the death penalty and for 10 years lived off the taxpayers of Texas until finally he was put to death in 2001. His family did not even have the balls to appear in the film or offer any kind of public apology to the family of the victims. The film is well done, the filmmaker is anti-death penalty and the film is slanted in that direction, however I do believe the facts were presented in an unbiased way and the viewer can make up their own minds on whether justice was done. In my opinion both men should have received the death penalty and both should be six feet under. I give the film a 7 knocking off for its slanted view on the subject.
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Not Herzog's best work.
valleyjohn31 March 2012
On TV at the moment there is a TV series running called " Death Row" which is directed by Werner Herzog . Obviously while filming the series ( or visa versa) he made this film . Released in the UK this week , Into The Abyss is an interesting look at death row and one of it's inmates but sadly not half as interesting as the the TV series.

I like Werner Herzog. He's the most German sounding German your ever likely to hear but with it he's a very interesting film maker. He is extremely honest in his direction and has a charming naivety about him that makes his film extremely watchable.

This film follows inmate Michael Perry who , along with an accomplice killed three people without reason or thought. We see scene of crime videos which are quite harrowing and interviews with Perry himself and he seems like a reasonable young man . He admits he did the murders yet seems unfased about it. The problem is , is that Herzog does not pressure him enough about why he did it or even what he is going through on Death Row. Because of that the film is quite boring and quite sterile.

Another problem is the lack of time he gets with the inmate and that he had no time with him close to his execution.

This could have been so much better but i feel Herzog had his hands tied which prevented him making the film he really wanted to show.
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Dave17 March 2012
Werner Herzog again manages to present real life as a badly played out drama.

Full of meaningless questions, he seems to get pleasure from asking for the details like a perverted voyeur. I'm actually annoyed by the way he handled the subject and no doubt the most interesting footage is lying on the cutting room floor.

There are many examples of this type of documentary. This is the worst I have seen by far.

If you want an insight into a death row inmate. I highly recommend 'Fourteen days in May'.
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