The Reel Deal
INTO THE ABYSS
A Reel Deal Film Review
Film Insight by Tyler Malone
Reel Rating: 4.5 out of 5
“R-E-S-P-E-C-T, FIND OUT WHAT IT MEANS TO ME”
In reviewing such a somber movie–Into the Abyss is a documentary about a triple-murder which then ends with a fourth murder in the form of one of the two killers receiving a lethal injection–it may seem weird to title my review after a song by Aretha Franklin. But this film is all about “respect”–respect for life.
Thinking back on filmmaker Werner Herzog’s massive oeuvre of both fiction and non-fiction films (narrative and documentary features and shorts), I can’t conjure up a memory of any one that feels more overtly political than this. Obviously, even at Herzog’s most didactic though, there’s still enormous amounts of nuance. But he does come out directly and say his point of view in this film in what I think are much more direct terms than ever before. He says up front that he thinks capital punishment is wrong. It shows our disrespect for life. At one point, when face to face with one of the murderers, the one who inevitably will face his own death eight days after the interview with the filmmaker, Herzog says: “When I talk to you, it does not necessarily mean I have to like you, but I respect you, and you’re a human being, and I think human beings should not be executed. Simple as that.” The notion of respect in this issue is paramount, because the murderer who does get murdered is rather unlikable, yet if we determine that his life doesn’t deserve any respect, where do we draw the line with respect to life? And how then do we respect our own lives? What does it mean to respect a life? These are questions one might expect Herzog to outrightly ask, but he does not.
While he seems to be more overt in his political positioning (specifically his stance in opposition to capital punishment) than he is in most of his films, this is also weirdly the film where Herzog is the most removed, the most silent. Though Herzog’s basic argument is clear, this is not Herzog’s version of a Michael Moore polemic–it is not polemical at all. If the thesis in this film essay is the most pronounced of any in his oeuvre, this is also the one where his personality, style and flair are the most absent. Whereas in many of his films he throws out little philosophical trinkets and strange(ly satisfying) metaphors, and also often appears in front of the camera regularly, here he merely observes. He never shows himself, and asks very simple, very straightforward, very unassuming questions. Few of the “big questions” get asked directly, and even fewer of Herzog’s idiosyncratic philosophical phrases escape his lips. This is not one of his films where he’ll ask something like “do fish have dreams?” And it’d probably be out of place if he did.
Herzog’s relative absence from the film was unexpected–mind you he is still doing the voiceovers and asking the questions but his presence is nowhere near as forefront as is often the case in Herzog films–but the film works just as well without his usual ubiquity. Interestingly, even with his general position made clear, more clear than usual, because he is largely removed from the film itself, we have little clue as to how he feels about any of the events along the way, or any of the people he interviews–except that, even the most monstrous of them, he respects.
Into the Abyss is a great film, and definitely worth seeing, even though it is one of Herzog’s least Herzogian documentaries. It is a compelling and moving portrait of the American underbelly, and it has just enough Herzogian quirk for any viewer to tell that it’s not just another episode of MSNBC’s Lockup. But I’ll admit I preferred Herzog’s other film of this year: Cave of Forgotten Dreams. That film was Herzog at perhaps his most Herzogian which, as a huge fan of the filmmaker, I obviously ate up. I preferred that film, but I think there will be as many people who will prefer this one. What’s weird is, though the films couldn’t be more different, their titles could be swapped and each movie would still work. Cave of Forgotten Dreams could have been called Into the Abyss, and this film could have easily been called Cave of Forgotten Dreams. After all, through murder and violence, whether done by them or done to them or both, each person featured in this film has holed up in their own cave of forgotten dreams, and Herzog allows us to descend into the abyss of each, and into the abyss of the whole messy calamity, to come away disturbed by the troubling intellectual and emotional turmoil that arises from a lack of respect for human life.
Into the Abyss is a film written and directed by Werner Herzog. Conversations with death row inmate Michael Perry and those affected by his crime serve as an examination of why people–and the state–kill.
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography Courtesy of IFC Films
Design by Jillian Mercado
Press Photo from Into The Abyss, Photography Courtesy of IFC Films