Combustible Celluloid
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With: Michael Perry, Jason Burkett, Reverend Richard Lopez, Lt. Damon Hall, Lisa Stotler-Balloun, Charles Richardson, Jared Talbert, Amanda West, Delbert Burkett, Melyssa Thompson-Burkett, Fred Allen, Werner Herzog (voice)
Written by: Werner Herzog
Directed by: Werner Herzog
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material and some disturbing images
Running Time: 107
Date: 09/08/2011

Into the Abyss (2011)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Dead Men Talking

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

As a documentary filmmaker, Werner Herzog has gone into some strange, dangerous and downright crazy places, but none more so than Texas. And where does Herzog visit while in Texas? Death Row, of course. But in speaking with convicted murderers Michael Perry -- who was executed just days after his interview -- and Jason Burkett -- who received a life sentence -- Herzog has once again come up with an exemplary documentary about the dark mysteries of humans.

Herzog begins Into the Abyss by setting the record straight. He doesn't believe in the death penalty, and he doesn't necessarily like Perry, but he does believe that Perry deserves respect as a human being. Perry seems to respond to this, and gives an open, honest interview. Herzog spends a bit of time covering the crimes that were committed -- three people died over the theft of a car -- but finds his most fertile ground while interviewing the families of the victims. One woman, Lisa Stotler-Balloun, tells a harrowing story of too many family deaths occurring all at once. She says she found solace in attending Perry's execution, and Herzog does not discredit her.

He also interviews Fred Allen, the captain of the "tie-down" team. His job was to strap down the convicted inmate's left leg, while his team handles the rest of the duties. He participated in hundreds of executions, but one of them -- a woman -- suddenly gave him the shivers. He could no longer face the job and decided to quit, even giving up his pension. On a lighter note, Herzog also interviews a woman who has nurtured a curious relationship with Burkett.

Typically in a Herzog film, the director follows unexpected trails to find new stories. Here, he discovers that Burkett's father is also in jail, and includes a separate interview with him. Herzog discovers a man filled with shame and regret; it's one thing to be in jail yourself, but it's another thing entirely when your son follows suit.

The subject matter in Into the Abyss is harrowing stuff, and though Herzog has never shied away from harrowing, he also presents it with respect and curiosity, making it easily palatable. Yet at the same time I couldn't help comparing it with his other film from earlier this year, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Into the Abyss is more immediate and emotionally powerful to be sure, but also less artistically interesting; as a necessity, Herzog had to set up and shoot his interviews quickly, and so the film has very little visual style. Both are outstanding movies with different strengths, but I suspect that if I had to choose one to watch a second time, the mysterious caves are sounding a great deal more alluring than the cold walls on death row.

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