Into the Abyss is a documentary of such enormous gravity that is belongs among the best of American crime movies. It’s a colossus of human horror and heartbreak that uses our landscapes (strip malls, gated communities, trailer parks) to tell a story that reflects both the terror of death’s face and the urgency of life. Naturally enough, this blessing is brought to us by Werner Herzog.
The greatness of Herzog’s latest becomes obvious the moment you leave the theater. Your mind and heart stop in the doorway so as to recover and calibrate before life, which in a mere two hours has changed noticeably. To me, the Abyss experience is something like a shipwreck of the imagination: I’m devastated to see below the surface. Afterward, for some 45 minutes, the world appears gossamer, usually bright, almost rippling. The last movie that gave me this feeling was Tree of Life, a brilliant, yet very different, kind of film.
Into the Abyss is a documentary about the lives ruined and lost in a Texas triple homicide. Herzog said the crime’s utter senselessness — a mother and two young men died over a red sports car — attracted him to the story, which he describes as something big, unexplainably big.
Herzog confronts the Goliath of the story with a driving curiosity. He captures those affected by the crime and let’s them speak to the camera. He interviews a man who’s on death row for the triple homicide just days before he is set to be executed. He talks to the other man involved in the crime, who’s only serving a life sentence because his father (who Herzog also talks to and who’s also serving a life sentence for an unrelated crime) begged the jury to spare his son. He talks to the daughter whose mother and brother were killed. He talks to a former prison worker whose job it was to meet the needs of death row inmates hours before they’re scheduled to take their final breath.
Artfully, Herzog uses these interviews to lead you to the edge of the abyss, and you just can’t help but look into it. What some of these people have had to go through, what some of them face, what some of them say to the camera is just so amazingly sad that tears trouble your eyes due to the fact that this story, this tragedy, is part of modern American life. It also makes one wonder about the last time a documentary brought tears to your eyes.
But this movie isn’t a tearjerker. In fact, it’s often funny. The humor bubbles up out of the strange people that inhabit parts of Texas: People who’ve been stabbed with foot-long screwdrivers and don’t go to the hospital because they had work in 30 minutes; people who named a city Cut and Shoot; people who consider felonies trivial. And even some of movie’s saddest moments, such as a father retelling how embarrassed he was to eat Thanksgiving dinner in jail with two of his sons, possess some black hole-dark humor.
Abyss even gets political, which is something Herzog doesn’t do too often. In the course of an interview, Herzog gives his stance on capital punishment, which he finds inhumane. But he doesn’t push it on you. He seems to be much more interested in showing how death lives in our society – its oddities, its horrors, its aftermaths and complications.
As you might have guessed, this movie isn’t easy viewing. Its austere, direct style may come off as blunt, but I think when beauty alights within its frame, it appears astoundingly fresh, without any trace of empty style or sentimental gimmicks. And the life-affirming, brilliant moments captured are easily worth the walk in the valley of the shadow of death.
Into The Abyss is playing at the Uptown Theater.