'Into the Abyss' Review: A Balanced Take on the Death Penalty
“Into the Abyss” is a great example of a film that has a point of view but never hits viewers over the head with it.
Writer/director Werner Herzog, who previously gave us “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” and “Grizzly Man,” is unmistakably an opponent of the death penalty. However, he crafts his newest movie not to support his beliefs but to shed light on a specific case where a man sits on death row waiting to be executed.
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The documentary opens with a conversation with a priest. Herzog asks, “Why does God allow capital punishment?” The question lingers without answer before we meet Michael Perry, a death row inmate who is only a few days away from his punishment. Perry and some of his friends were convicted of killing three people in a failed car robbery.
Three innocent people were killed in their bid to steal one car.
"Into the Abyss" never shies away from telling the story of the actual crime. Other filmmakers might negate the details of the crime, but Herzog shares videos that were taken shortly after the homicides. Sandra Stotler was one of the victims, and we see the kitchen she was killed in. Unmade cookies are lined up in on her counter, reminding viewers that Stotler’s life was unfinished itself when a group of thugs ended it.
Viewers have a chance to understand those who were convicted of committing the horrendous homicides without asking us to sympathize with them. Lesser filmmakers might have done more to show the “positive” sides of these people, but Herzog just wants us to meet them. Perry himself is depicted with all of his flaws intact. Right before he gets executed, he tells the people executing him that he forgives them. Hardly the humble message of a man looking for redemption.
It’s also noted that after the murders took place, Perry pretended to be one of the victims to help him escape suspicion. Watching the victim’s sister describe her experience thinking that her brother was alive when in fact he was dead and his killer was using his identification is heartbreaking. Such behavior is so disgusting it’s hard to even imagine. Three people were killed, and Perry prolonged the suffering of a woman who lost her mother AND her brother in the homicides.
That family member receives a lot of face time in the film, and for good reason. She’s at the heart of the story since she suffered so much because of it. This woman, who got rid of her telephone because it only brought her bad news, shows the pain inflicted by the murders.
“I am so glad I went to the execution,” she says late in the story about Perry’s death. Who can blame her?
“Into the Abyss” is a smart and intense film about the death penalty that takes sides but never shies away from the murders that took place. Its subject and its message aren’t for everyone, but it’s a serious film about a serious subject. Herzog’s work should be appreciated as such.