Friday, November 11, 2011

Werner Herzog bounces back with crime/ punishment investigation INTO THE ABYSS

After his off-and-on-the-mark, earliest-paintings documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, in which one of the world's most interesting documentarians, Werner Herzog, explored Chauvet Cave (in 3-D, yet!) but seemed to get a little drunk on his own, somewhat pompous, narration, the man is back with one of the most humane, far-reaching movies in some time. INTO THE ABYSS explores capital punishment from several angles -- that of the victim of the state, his earlier victims, and the relatives of both. As it moves inward to probe the thoughts and feelings of all these people, the movie simultaneously expands outward until it embraces our society at large. What it (and what you) will make of this is something sad and profound and not a little disturbing -- and yet, surprise of surprises, it is not judgmental.

Herzog himself (shown at right) goes on record upfront by telling us and his interviewees that he is against capital punishment. But then he simply interviews, asking each person thoughtful, germane questions without any attitude attached. Consequently, the answers come back as genuine and real -- except in the case of the young man about to be executed (Michael Perry, below), who never appears to have grown up enough to accept anything approaching responsibility. Is he mentally challenged? A sociopath?  W can't know from what we see here, nor, I think, does the filmmaker believe that it matters much.

Into the Abyss is the third film (that I've seen; there may have more even more) in nearly as many weeks to implicate, if not indict, its location -- our formerly Bush-led and now Perry-ized state of Texas (Incendiary and Texas Killing Fields were the other two). Seeing these three films in fairly quick succession (two are docs, one is narrative based on a real tale) cannot help but make one wonder what is (and isn't) going on there that should (or should not) be. When, suddenly, we are confronted with the fact that one of the adults we're listening to was illiterate at the time of which he speaks, it comes as the kind of shock, the ramifications of which seem to expand exponentially.

With the exception of the late Mr. Perry, the other characters seem genuinely to believe what they are telling us -- from the father of one of the killers (himself imprisoned, above), who gives by far the most moving testimony, to his son's wife, who began one of those long-distance letter-writing correspondences and is now married to the murderer.

That this young man (Jason Delbert, below) is unable to be paroled until he hits around 60 years of age seems to daunt no one.

Via the families of the boy's victims, one of whom is shown below, we also get both more and less than we might have imagined: more specifics, more depth but less anger.

Unlike the bizarre connections he insisted on making in "Cave," here Herzog is content to simply give us information and let us work it into what we will: for instance, what happened to the red Camaro, below, that appears to have been the motive behind the initial killings.

Even the executioner (below, if you can call him that: he's a tool of the state) manages to make what happens seems almost humane. Yet it is clearly not. So much so, in fact, that the man himself must eventually give up his job -- and at what a cost!

I don't think Into the Abyss will turn many people against (or for that matter, pro) capital punishment. But it will make them think, feel and then think again. Even-handed in the very best way by giving us nothing more nor less than humanity itself, the movie -- 106 minutes, from Sundance Selects -- begins its limited theatrical run today, Friday, November 11, after making its NYC debut as the opening night attraction of DOC-NYC.

In New York City you can catch it at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the IFC Center. In Los Angeles, see it at The Landmark, and note that tomorrow, November 12, Herr Herzog himself will appear in person at the 7:20 and 10pm screenings of that L.A. theater.

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