Back in the director’s chair (naturally) is the great Werner Herzog, flying high after his last critical hit, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams. This time out, Werner Herzog tackles the subject of the death penalty. Wow, Herzog, the death penalty, and existential cinema collide? I’m there! One has to go into something like Into the Abyss with an open mind due to the subject matter at hand and check any preconceived notions at the door. Will we choose sides, will we remain locked in neutral? It’s good to know that we have Captain Herzog at the wheel, but depending on what you may think of his past works, is that necessarily a good thing? Keep reading after the jump to find out.
Into the Abyss is Werner Herzog’s follow-up film to The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, as he takes us on a journey into the abyss known as death. Into the Abyss a documentary that focuses on the death penalty and how everyone involved copes with its effects, before, during, and after all is said and done.
A series of murders (triple homicide) took place more than ten years ago and the police got their men, er, boys. The boys in question are Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, now men. Perry sits on death row about to be executed within 8 days of filming and Burkett sits in prison for life. Herzog basically sits the camera down and lets the defendants tell their story. It’s weird, because as they speak, they sort of tell you everything without telling you anything. Herzog has a way of communicating with them that make them a bit more forthcoming, so as to make things a bit clearer.
In addition to the interviews with the principles we also get interviews with family members of the victims and of the defendants. A peculiar bookmark of sorts highlights the film in that as it opens we get an interview with the prison chaplain who oversees the prisoners deaths, where they may confess themselves before being executed. The other is toward the end of the main feature in which a former prison official talks about his time at the prison where he was part of setting up prisoners to meet their fates and how he could not cope with setting up executions anymore. Watching these two men tell their stories was about as gnarly as what the rest of the feature showcased. The chaplain’s in the sense of he’s there to sort of comfort the inmate as he gets ready to be executed and how it reflects on what he does for a living while he plays a game of golf. The former guard you can tell isn’t coping as well due to his nervous speech patterns. He’s seen so much death that he was inadvertently part of due to it being his job.
What I think the film and Herzog does well in Into the Abyss is that it never judges, preaches, or tries to tell you what to think about any of these people. The camera is the proverbial fly on the wall and it’s there to record humans tell stories. It’s not a pleasant subject matter and Herzog never judges. He does make it known that he is not a death penalty supporter, though, but doesn’t condemn anyone who is.
I had somewhat of a tough time in grading the film portion. It’s a great film, but due to it being extremely bleak, I don’t see myself watching it over and over again. I can usually handle the bleak when it comes to fiction, but real life bleakness is a major buzzkill. This doesn’t detract from the film being any good. The film is exceptional.
I do know that Herzog showcased a sort of pseudo-sequel anthology of Into the Abyss called On Death Row in Los Angeles a few months ago. It was a 3hr+ film that played as a companion piece to this film. I’m sure we’ll be seeing a cinema or home video release sometime in the near future.
Into the Abyss is presented in 1080p, 1.78:1 widescreen. The film is intermixed with archived footage and full screen still frames that don’t look all that great. The footage of the interviews looks decent enough, with flesh tones looking as natural as they can. The shots of the scenery excel, but other than that it’s not a film bristling with detail.
Into the Abyss is presented in DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless surround sound. Again, like the video source, there’s just so much that a documentary like this benefits from. Dialogue is king here as it comes through effortlessly. We can hear Werner Herzog and understand him perfectly as he asks questions offscreen. Our principle cast also sound clear, as well. Music and the various cues come through the left and right channels along with a bit of a twang in the rear speakers. It’s a quieter soundtrack than his last film, but it’s still above average.
Damn it. I don’t like giving out goose eggs, but when the only extra is a generic trailer then there’s no choice in the matter. The joy of watching supplements on a Werner Herzog film is to see the inner workings of the man and what he goes through in bringing his vision of a film to the screen. Maybe next time. *shakes fist in anger*
Into the Abyss is a real heavy look into the death penalty, but it doesn’t preach an agenda. Is it wrong, is it right, there are no answers to those question. We know Herzog is against it himself, but it’s irrelevant to the main story that he’s telling. It’s not about what he thinks, it’s about what the people involved in this mess have to say. Be warned, you will take a journey through the abyss yourselves if you choose to watch it. Above average technical specifications highlight this Blu-ray, but the lack of special features bring the overall rating down a bit.
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