Into the Abyss: 2011 AFI Fest

By Ryan Mason · November 8, 2011

Werner Herzog introduced his newest film, a documentary called Into The Abyss, at the Egyptian Theater on Sunday night, by stating off the bat that if you’re looking for an issues film, then you’re going to be disappointed. And he’s right.

But, I wasn’t at all disappointed. Quite the contrary, actually. Veering away from the style of his previous docs like Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Grizzly Man, there is no voice over in this one. Instead Herzog elects to have the actual subjects of the film tell their own heartbreaking stories in their own words, taken from only eight total hours of footage. It’s a fantastic choice, allowing the viewer to form his or her own opinions about, yes, the highly controversial topic of capital punishment, but many others as well: America’s penal system, the cycle of victimhood, the ramifications of our choices, and our own mortality.

Rather than being simply an examination of the death penalty, Herzog’s film explores the humanity on both sides of those affected by a senseless crime. In this case, the crime was a triple homicide that left a mother, her son, and her son’s friend dead all because a couple teenagers wanted to steal their red Chevy Camero and take it for a joyride.

During the brief Q&A after the film, Herzog said that Into The Abyss was “about the urgency of life,” that he wasn’t in the business of establishing the guilt or innocence of Michael Perry and Jason Burkett. This isn’t a soapbox for them to argue their innocence. Instead, Herzog seeks to find out how these people are handling their respective fates. Perry’s facing the last days of his life unless the court grants him a reprieve. Burkett has a life sentence, with his first parole opportunity not for another 39 years. Charles Richardson lives every day knowing that he introduced his brother, Jeremy, to the man that ended his life. And Adam Stotler’s sister has to cope with the loss of her brother and mother in the same tragedy. And of course there’s Jared Talbert, a peripheral life who was affected by both knowing Burkett previously and just living in the seedy part of Conroe, Texas.

That said, it’s clear that Herzog – who openly admits this – is not in favor of the death penalty. But if you’re looking for a Bowling For Columbine for capital punishment, look elsewhere because that’s not what Herzog is interested in doing here. Into The Abyss is a heart-wrenchingly honest film that delves into how everyone becomes a victim in a tragedy like this one. Everyone pays a great price, the greatest even. And in that sense, perhaps it’s the fact that it’s not an issues film that makes it one of the most powerful issues films made in recent years, one whose characters will stick with you long after the film has ended.