Thursday, 23 February 2012

Into the Abyss

Werner Herzog’s latest documentary contains the following great lines, delivered by Herzog as he is interviewing someone: “The death penalty seems rather Old Testament wrath of God to me. Jesus would probably not have been an advocate of capital punishment.”

While I take exception to the need for the word “probably”, these lines are harmless enough and would be fascinating to explore in the right context, but in Into the Abyss, they seem to come out of nowhere, just one example of many odd things about the film.

Into the Abyss relates the story of two young men in Conroe, Texas who killed three people because they wanted to steal a car. Each man says the other did the killing. One is sentenced to life, the other is sentenced to death, a death which happens during the filming of this odd documentary (though it is not part of the documentary).

I have used the word odd twice already, so let me use it a few more times: Herzog’s selection of interview subjects is odd, his questions are odd, the editing is odd, the film’s structure is odd and I was constantly shaking my head. Yes, there were many profound moments (and even some funny ones) in the interviews of various people involved in the story, and yes, Herzog’s heart is certainly in the right place (he states from the outset that he is opposed to capital punishment), but I found the viewing experience deeply unsatisfying.

Roger Ebert found Herzog’s low-key interviewing style compelling and gave Into the Abyss four stars. I certainly appreciated the honest sad responses of those being interviewed, and the interview of Fred Allen, a guard who was in charge of 100 executions before coming to the conclusion that he opposed the death penalty and walking away from his job, was particularly effective, but that interview is just another example of a lack of context. The way this film was made just didn’t work for me.

For me, the film’s greatest contribution was not on the subject of capital punishment but in the way its interview subjects reflected on their lives. Many of the interviews therefore worked well on their own, though Herzog’s frequently irritating questions (which Ebert thought brilliantly effective) didn’t help.

Perhaps if I lived in a country which still carried out such a barbaric practice, I would be more moved by the film’s flawed attempts at providing objective slants on the issue (flawed because Herzog makes it so clear where he stands - see my first paragraph). Fortunately, I do not live in such a country, and my problem probably lies in my inability to take the subject seriously, as if anyone could ever provide a remotely legitimate argument (let alone a theological one) for a civilized state taking a person’s life.

If you want to see a great film about capital punishment, see Dead Man Walking instead (or even The Green Mile). I give Into the Abyss *** for effort. My mug is up but the stuff inside has an odd flavour.

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