Thursday, September 20, 2012

Into the Abyss

Into the Abyss (2011) aka Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life
Dir. Werner Herzog
Written by Werner Herzog
Starring Werner Herzog “and Jason Burkett” according to the Netflix description. Claiming a multiple-murderer (and not even a very famous one) as a “star” seems kind of iffy in my opinion, and even weirder because he’s one of two murderers who get about equal screen time but his partner isn’t credited as a star. WTF Netflix, did Burkett have a better agent or something?

As we know from our past experiences with the wily German weirdo Werner Herzog, the only thing you can ever trust him to do is surprise you. I was prepared to be surprised upon seeing his second documentary of 2011 (following the fantastic CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS), because I knew it was supposed to be a movie about the death penalty, but then I heard that it was (as the name implies) Herzog’d away into a movie about the relationship humans have with death, particularly from the perspective of condemned death row inmates who know they’re about to die. But of course, the crafty German outwitted me again and double-faked me out by making a movie which actually isn’t about either of those things. I think it may actually be about life. I was gonna say that his next film will be a fluff piece about pregnant women which will actually be about death, but honestly that seems too obvious now. It’ll probably be a documentary about civil war reenactors which is actually about the tax code or something.

Anyway. INTO THE ABYSS revolves around the story of a triple homicide in Conroe, Texas which resulted in the conviction of two teenagers - Jason Burkett and Michael Perry. Perry was given the death sentence, while Burkett got life in prison. Herzog interviews both, along with an assortment of family members, police, and various colorful tangentially related characters.

The weird thing about all of this, really, is how sort of normal it all is. In most ways, it’s a fairly straightforward telling of this particular pathetic story of pointless violence and ruined lives. Herzog never appears on-screen, narrates infrequently, and generally interviews the cast of characters you’d expect to be involved in any made-for-TV doc about this week’s headline-grabbing murder. The movies it most reminded me of was Joe Berlinger (BLAIR WITCH PROJECT 2: BOOK OF SHADOWS)’s excellent series of docs about the West Memphis 3, PARADISE LOST. Those short documentaries are gripping, insightful, and I suppose its worth mentioning that they played a large role in exonerating 3 innocent kids who had been railroaded by Satanic Panic paranoia into being convicted for a crime it seems impossible for them to have committed. ABYSS actually very closely mirrors the construction of those films, which are known for utilizing real police video, crime scene footage, interviews the the families, the accused, and the locals in conjunction with poetic images and evocative music* to create a document which informs, moves, and challenges the viewer to try and discern the truth. The PARADISE LOST trilogy is pretty great, and Herzog copies their moves expertly. He lays out the story with the simplicity and elegance you’d expect, and probes the fact with what at times seems like almost journalistic keenness. Except, he’s not a journalist. He’s Werner Herzog. So you know he’s not just going to make a documentary telling the story of a crime from ten years ago in some one-cow redneck purgatory in Texas. What the fuck is he up to?

Herzog attempts to connect to normal human beings by talking about Baywatch.

Herzog himself, in a way, is what makes this unusual. He’s so obviously out of place in this world of trailer parks, ubiquitous gun ownership, and “thank you Jesus”es that he brings out weird things in his interview victims. I’m not saying I think they’re being disingenuous, I just think the off-putting nature of suddenly being psychologically probed by this deadpan German nutball shakes them out of their scripted roles on the subject. They’ve all seen this drama unfold on TV countless times, they know how it plays out. But I’m betting most of these folks wouldn’t have suddenly waxed poetic about, say, the heartbreaking natural beauty of a bird in flight had they not been prompted by the romantic tenor of Herzog’s questions.

It would be easy to see this as a bad thing: Herzog is such an outsider here that getting people to perceive him as a kindred spirit with whom to share their mundane daily reality is a virtual impossibility. For better or worse, these people are acutely aware that they’re talking to someone way outside their usual experience, and that he’s making some kind of artsy Euro-documentary on them. It’s probably not the best way to infiltrate this community looking for the hidden truth which has eluded other researchers. Is either of these boys actually innocent? Everyone interviewed knows they’re gonna end up in a movie theater, so they’re not especially inclined to turn over rocks for him and reveal the squirming rot underneath this otherwise merely pathetic community.

But if it means Herzog is unlikely to trick someone into revealing their hidden crimes to him, it compensates by shaking them out of their stupor and putting them in a position where they may be asking themselves things they haven’t ever had to before. It opens them up to talk about their lives as they imagine them, as they perceive them, and in some cases almost certainly the way they wish them. Herzog doesn’t really care about the literal truth, nor does he make any effort to pursue it. But he’s very interested in the emotional truth, something which I suspect most of these people had never really been given the chance to ponder in this manner. The result is that interviewees are caught oddly off-guard by their own emotion, seeming frequently not to suspect how deeply sad they are until it suddenly, unexpectedly, bubbles up from below to answer some seemingly benign question. I’m not sure they could reveal this side of themselves to a fellow Texan, armed with the same cultural norms and expectations. But with an incomprehensible German maniac asking seemingly unrelated questions about their tattoos and favorite sports teams, all bets are off, their guard comes down, and suddenly it can all spill out.    

And over here is where they found the dessicated corpse of your last shred of hope for humanity

    To get to this, though, Herzog first has to carefully lay out all the pieces of this drama for us so we have some context. And sweet Zeus, they are some fucking depressing pieces. This movie is a bigger heartbreaker than double fried twinkie with sugar lard filling. It begins by hinting at the horror we’re about to explore through what we’re told is the actual police footage of the crime scene, which may genuinely be among the most chilling film images I’ve ever watched. The hand-held camera ominously pans around a fancy suburban home, but something is wrong. The TV is burning but no one is around. A half - rolled pan of cookies --cookies!!-- is sitting on the counter, but no one seems to have come back to finish it. Then the camera notices the blood. Splattered up to the ceiling by the front door. Then a long bloody trail through the house out into the garage. Where there’s a god damn bloody teddy bear sitting forlornly on the red-spattered concrete. That’s right. A mother fucking teddy bear, in defiance of all logic, reason and decently.

Then we move on to the police footage of the body dump. I admit that I’m not a trained law-enforcement professional, but is is normal police procedure to film these crime scenes in the dead of the night and then to zoom in and focus on hauntingly poetic details like kid’s tennis shoe just barely visible through the trees or a woman’s manicured hand --complete with wedding ring-- floating near the surface of the murky water? Because fuck that. If you put those shots in one of those tedious found footage horror movies they have now, I would laugh at how ridiculously overwrought and unbelievable it was. Come on guys, don’t you think the forlorn tennis shoe and the bloody teddy bear is laying it on a little thick? But here it’s real.

And that’s all before we talk to the killers, the hopeless illiterate redneck alcoholic townies, the also-imprisoned father of one of the boys, the cops who shot roughly six or seven hundred thousand rounds at the escaping suspects’ car, bodies, and surrounding buildings, and the brother of one victim and sister and daughter of the other two. That’s sister and daughter. Both. That’s right, this poor girl lost her mom and her brother in one day. But wait, it gets worse. It wouldn’t be so bad, she says, if she hadn’t just lost her father 6 months earlier. And even that wouldn’t have been so bad if he hadn’t been a priest who was going to officiate her wedding. But even that wouldn’t have been so depressing if he hadn’t died horribly in a train accident. Which also killed her other brother. And the family dog. And the family DOG. The. family. dog.

That’s pretty fucking depressing, you might be thinking. Well fuck you, you don’t know what depressing is, jack. For a true pro at being depressing like this chick, that shit barely registers. It’s the equivalent for you and me of discovering that the leftover Chinese food we were planning on eating has spoiled, or at worst a particularly underwhelming sequel to a decent movie, maybe JURASSIC PARK 3 level. No, to really get nice and depressing she’s also got to point out that this was all after her one uncle had OD’d on fucking heroin, another had hung himself, a third shot himself because he was dying of cancer, and I think she mentioned that a fourth went on to direct ATLAS SHRUGGED PART 1, might be wrong about that one its hard to remember things with all this crippling, stupefying depression and whatnot. It was right at this point that I suddenly started to wonder if this was actually some kind of weird German misery porn joke, kind of a companion piece to that (mock?)umentary where Werner Herzog and the dumpy bald guy who wrote X-MEN 2 get menaced by the Loch Ness monster.** Or maybe something along the lines of Lars Von Triers’ Bjork-torturing misery-porn comedy masterpiece DANCER IN THE DARK, but one-upped by presenting it as a real story. 

These three movies came out the same weekend, which in a complete coincidence also coincided with the highest annual rate of people weeping uncontrollably until they gouged their own eyes out.

I don’t think it is, but it’s definitely possible to reach a breaking point on the misery here, after which you’re either going to turn if off and go kick a puppy, or just end up burning out and becoming a bit distanced from things. Of course, it’s right around this point that Herzog switches gears again, moving away from telling the story and instead trying to probe all of those involved as to what it all means. And one of the most admirable things the film seems to suggest is that it’s unreasonable and foolhardy to really draw *any* kind of specific meaning or lesson from any of this. It’s all a confusing tangle of stupidity, randomness, pain, and confusion that resolutely refuses to draw itself into any kind of patronizing moral. Even the facts of the case beg some incredulity. There are clearly major parts of this story missing, but then again the more you learn the less sense any of it seems to makes. Not in a West Memphis Three “this railroading justice system made a case which everyone bought even though it makes no sense!” kind of way, more in a way which suggests how incomprehensibly complicated and nebulous the world is, and how strongly it resists our attempts to pin it down into a clear, coherent narrative. That’s why Herzog seems so disinterested in probing the facts of the case the way, say, Erroll Morris might do. Life itself is way too unfathomable to make it possible to try and distill an honest narrative from it. To try and make it into a reassuring morality fable with clear action and consequences would be dishonest -- all that we can really do is ask how it affects us, personally.. And that’s what Herzog does.

So the rest of the movie is Herzog probing those involved for meaning -- asking them not what happened, but how it changed them, what it means to them. There’s a horror story here as well, of course, but one with a little more nuance than the pathetic, dismal facts of the case. Most movingly, Herzog speaks to Jason Burkett’s father, a stunningly articulate guy, himself incarcerated, whose haunted eyes reveal even more than his impassioned words how deeply guilty he feels for the role his own fucked up fathering played in turning his son into a killer. There’s also an amazing interview with a former death row captain named Fred Allen who snapped and walked off the job for reasons even he can’t quite put into words. Herzog begins the film by mentioning that he doesn’t believe in the death penalty, but this is the only section which really directly addresses that topic. Perry and Burkett killed three people, but this bearded middle-aged workman sitting in a spacious Texas living room helped to kill 127. They were all legal, government-sanctioned deaths, he was just doing his job and even tried to do it as humanely as possible. But the horrible psychological scars all that killing left on him are obvious. We’re rightly repulsed by Perry and Burkett’s senseless and remorseless murders, but of course as a society we’re equally willing to decide who does and does not deserve to live, and equally dispassionate about killing people we decide we want dead. We can also be equally capricious. There’s no reason to believe Burkett and Perry were anything other than equally guilty, but Burkett’s deadbeat dad tearfully talked a jury out of the death penalty for his son. Perry didn’t have anyone as eloquent making a plea on his behalf, and so he died. Herzog makes no explicit commentary on any of this, but he doesn’t need to.  

The face of a killer.

Sometimes Herzog’s interviewees open up with remarkable and unexpected humanity and passion. Not always, though. Most horrifyingly, Herzog talks to a cheerful, somewhat pretty young lady in a spacious suburban home who turns out to be Jason Burkett’s wife. Oh, that’s funny, they didn’t mention he was married when he got arrested, and I don’t see how he could have met someone and gotten married in pris.... oh. “I never thought I’d be someone who would marry a guy in prison!” giggles this horrifying woman who was just writing letters to incarcerated multiple-murderers for no reason, definitely not because she’s a kinky psycho.*** There’s a deeply uncomfortable part where she describes holding Burkett’s hand, gushing that he ‘completely covers me, taking complete control and never letting me go!’ Isn’t that sweet? You can almost hear the boom operators grinding their teeth. She chipperly brushes off any question of Burkett’s guilt, all she’s interested in is getting as many babies as possible out of him. That’s right, babies. “I want fifty children,” the incarcerated multiple murderer quips. Thank God they’re separated by glass and men with guns and there’s no possible way for that to happen, right?

This leads most horrific camera zoom-out in cinematic history, and the viewer leaping to his or her feet and shouting, “Don’t you dare fucking tell me what I think you’re going to tell me, you devious sadistic kraut bastard!”

So yeah, it’s a horror story, but in Herzog’s hands it also becomes much more. It’s about, I believe, how we react to death, and how bringing more death into the world --regardless of the reason-- changes us and changes the world itself. In the prologue to the film, Herzog talks to a prison chaplain about how he deals with administering religious rites to men who are about to be killed. The guy tearfully explains that he focuses on life, and especially his appreciation of nature, instead -- leading Herzog to hilariously deadpan “tell me about an encounter with a squirrel.” It’s a funny line, but he means it sincerely and really, is it any more ludicrous than all the death and pain brought about because two teenage rednecks wanted to drive a red sports car? Life itself is absurd, but we have to celebrate it anyway, because the alternative... well, the alternative is documented all too well herein. In a world too arbitrary and strange to make much sense of, all you can really do is get out there, watch some Werner Herzog movies, try to be nice to people, and make sure to encounter a squirrel or two.

*In Herzog’s case, that music is by ROMAN POLANKSI: WANTED AND DESIRED composer Mark Degli Antoni. In Berlinger’s, it’s Metallica. But you got to remember, that was the 90s so I swear to you that it seemed emotionally powerful at the time. And hey, turns out Antoni was the keyboard player for Soul Coughing, so they got the 90’s alt rock thing going here, too.


***Think about that the next time you’re not getting laid.


  1. I didn't realize it at the time, but your final sentence makes me feel like this would make a nice double feature with A SERIOUS MAN. Or maybe part of a nice trifecta of movies consisting of INTO THE ABYSS, A SERIOUS MAN, and SLAUGHTER HOUSE 5. All stories approaching in different ways the random metaphorical (or literal, with the middle one) tornado of life, luck, suffering, lack of narrative, and what drives us to be moral or immoral or amoral beings. Assuming there's a movie of SL5, I mean; I feel like there must be.

  2. There is indeed a movie of SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE, and a pretty good one considering what a weird book it is.

    If you were going to watch ABYSS with those other two, though, I think you'd have to watch it first and then let the intentional over-the-top silliness of the other two be kind of an antidote to the ugliness of this particular story.

  3. Yeah. I think INTO THE ABYSS may actually be titled as such unrelated to its contents or the lives/perspectives of its characters, but rather where your crushed spirit is headed by the end of the movie.