Werner Herzog at the Execution

11/09/2011 4:00 AM |

Into the Abyss
Directed by Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog’s last few documentaries have taken him to exotic locales: the south of France, Antarctica, the Alaskan wilderness. But his latest travels to perhaps the most unusual yet—rural Texas, where he explores a murder case and crafts a sober, persuasive, and serendipitously timed argument against the death penalty. (We are all Troy Davis, even Herzog.) In 2010, Michael Perry was executed for a triple murder he committed a decade earlier in the city of Conroe for the sake of stealing a Camaro. (His accomplice, Jason Burkett, received a life sentence.) Herzog investigates this messy, petty, senseless true-crime story and fills it in with lurid and poignant details, wielding his talent as a probing and insightful interviewer in conversations with the families and friends of both the victims and the killers; he tours the town, genuinely interested in its inhabitants and their colloquialisms, like “balls to the wall.”

But Herzog’s never condescending: he highlights our shared humanity, even Perry’s—who, when the director interviews him just days before he would be executed, smiles boyishly and avers his innocence. Herzog speaks as well to a victim’s sister, who describes in spare and precise detail the execution itself. He talks to a former death-row director about the procedures before and after a lethal injection: the last meal, the waiting, the small talk, the strapping down, the injections, the unstrapping. Herzog isn’t some naive or disingenuous softie, nor does he pretend to be undisturbed by the murder: police videos of the crime scenes, their blood stains and splatters, speak clearly for themselves. Instead, his relentless accumulation of details teases out the senseless barbarity of violence—whether it’s committed by callous kids breaking the law or by a state acting within it.

Opens November 11

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