According to its press materials, Lake of Fire, Tony Kaye’s abortion documentary 17 years in the making, is “unquestionably the definitive work on the subject.” Whether Lake of Fire is definitive, or even the masterpiece each of its black and white frames announces it to be, is certainly questionable, but once one drops such impossible expectations it becomes clear that the film is something special: an emotionally wrenching experience that never loses sight of the ethical complexity and social divisiveness of this controversial medical procedure.
For all his excesses — a reliance on overwrought music cues, an artistic indulgence in the cinematography he himself crafts — Kaye may very well be the perfect filmmaker for such a project. The director of American History X is nothing if not unflinching, and his camera maintains a ruthlessly steady concentration on the graphic procedure, a woman’s experience of having one and the charged ideological battles waged in front of abortion clinics across America. Lake of Fire spends much time profiling religious pro-life zealots (rather than, say, exploring abortion’s history), but for good reason: the film seeks to document the here and now, and an extreme fringe has been structuring the national dialogue on abortion ever since Roe v. Wade (Norma McCorvey, aka Jane Roe, makes an unforgettable appearance as a Roman Catholic convert now fighting against abortion) through an organized campaign of intimidation and, often, violence. Kaye interviews intellectuals (Chomsky, Dershowitz) for counterargument, but there’s no resolution of the issue. If any decisiveness emerges out of Lake of Fire, it’s of indecisiveness, of a moral struggle that cuts to the core of human values and understanding.