Werner Herzog's latest American adventure appears to have emerged out of a very specific set of circumstances. Into the Abyss is at once a spin-off from/companion piece to the director's television series Death Row, currently screening on the UK's Channel 4, and borne out of Herzog's time as unofficial documentarist-in-residence at a prison in Texas. Yet we might also see it as an altogether sober redress to the sensationalism of 2010's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, this time describing, down to the last painstakingly transcribed memo, how the law goes about its business - normally without recourse to cocaine, hookers and stray iguanas. It also feels like an extension of the prevailing CSI culture, one that benefits from our new and quite possibly ghoulish fascination with the imagery of the crime scene: the blood trails, the spatter patterns, the spotlights ghosting over physical and material evidence.
These latter elements are all present in the police video that kicks off this investigation into the events that led to a young man named Michael Perry being executed by lethal injection in July 2010. Unlike Errol Morris in The Thin Blue Line, Herzog comes to Death Row not to exonerate or suggest a miscarriage of justice; on the contrary, there's plentiful evidence to indicate that Perry, together with an older teenager, Jason Burkett, murdered a rich classmate, his mother and another friend during a home invasion robbery back in 2001. No, Herzog arrives here as an opponent of capital punishment, though less out of concerns over possible judicial errors than as a dyed-in-the-wool Romantic: someone who believes death should involve an experience more dignified and transcendent than being strapped to a gurney and pumped full of toxins. That death should be reserved for special occasions, in fact, and not simply become part of a process that regards executions as something to be doled out like so many tater tots onto prisoners' lunch trays, and tosses a steady stream of unfortunate victims out into unmarked graves in state cemeteries. (Herzog actually misses a trick in not examining the cost benefits of executing prisoners, rather than letting them live on to a ripe old age.)
The thesis necessitates a form of special pleading: Herzog repeatedly stresses Perry's bad luck, as apparently merciless as the sun that beats down on this part of Texas, and contrasts his poor choices with those of his former friends, cohorts and acquaintances. Perry claims he only hopped into Burkett's car on that fateful night because the latter was his friend - what else would you do? - and wasn't aware his peer in the driving seat had already killed once that evening. Burkett's father, himself serving a 40-to-life sentence, restates from behind bars the "trash for a father" speech that got his son off Death Row. (Perry had no-one comparable to plead for him.) And a mutual acquaintance of the boys tells of a fight at a party where he was stabbed in the armpit with a screwdriver; when a friend tossed him a knife with which to gut his attacker, he declined to pick it up - and is still alive today, in a steady job, with a girlfriend and small child to show for himself. (This must be the luckiest dude in all Texas: he later recounts an incident where a gun was pointed and fired at him. Its firing pin wasn't long enough to reach the cartridge.)
What's so staggering here is the way these interviewees speak of their experiences: flatly, devoid of emphases or hyperbole, as though they were just things that happened, and not the fallout from some vast, mindboggling cosmic crapshoot. The duality of the film's subtitle begins to emerge, nevertheless: some go one way, some the other. It's the metaphysics of this case that really interest Herzog, not the forensics. "Why did they die?," the director asks the daughter and sister of the deceased - a question that simultaneously has several answers, and yet no entirely satisfying answer. Why them, indeed? Why not you or I? How come some pick up the knife or the shotgun in the heat of the moment, while others don't, or won't, or can't? With typical perversity, Herzog has fashioned a documentary that cannot lead its audience to a comforting conclusion, even if - in this case - the law did finally get their man. Or men.
Or - really - boys: there's certainly a weird arbitrariness in how Burkett, to all outward appearances the alpha of this pair, has another 40 years to live, while the toothy Perry - easily led, not just by Burkett, it turns out, but by his interviewer as well - finds himself with just eight days to go before he takes his long final walk. It is uncommonly spooky, watching these interviews with someone who is no longer around (and who must know he is going to die), though Herzog also pursues the knock-on effects of Perry's absence, seeking out relatives and loved ones as well as former prison guards like Fred Allen, who has to deal with the consequences of returning to the death house (where the executions take place) and repeatedly peering into this abyss. In filming these interactions, Herzog makes a virtue of an old documentarist's trick: leaving the camera running a beat or two after the conclusion of each answer, finding his subjects looking for further direction, at a loss for words, suddenly no longer sure what to make of the world they inhabit.
Though it begins with a squirrel anecdote and ends with a knowing, incongruously lovely riff on just what exactly can be smuggled out of a jail cell these days, Into the Abyss finds Herzog back at his most Teutonically serious. Those seeking the wilder, funnier showman who went off with his 3D camera to search for albino crocodiles in the middle of Cave of Forgotten Dreams may grow restless and disappointed; the new film never deviates from its stated intention of constructing a consensus of opinion - even the relatives of the deceased reveal that, at the eleventh hour, they didn't really want to have to see Perry die. Anybody with a fascination for Death Row as a location, whether spawned from old James Cagney movies or the HBO series Oz, should however find here a variety of compelling new angles and perspectives on this very earthly limbo, and whatever it was in the universe beyond it that set these dead men to walking in the first place.
Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life is in selected cinemas.