With Into the Abyss, director Werner Herzog is clear about his personal opinion regarding the death penalty. In the film’s opening moments, he asks a pastor, “Why does God allow capital punishment?” Yet his primary interest seems to be in the personal stories of the people who are caught up in the American (specifically, Texan) system of crime and punishment. And so there are extensive, intimate conversations not only with Michael Perry, who claims to be innocent of the murders for which he has been sent to death row, but also with the family members of Perry’s victims; the captain of the guards who leads prisoners into the death chamber; and the aforementioned pastor who accompanies them.
One of Herzog’s gifts as a documentarian is the way he creates space for his interview subjects to pursue seemingly tangential, but ultimately revealing, lines of thinking. Richard Lopez, the pastor, discusses his love of golf, and the way walking amidst nature offers respite between those days when he visits death row. He recalls a day when two squirrels tumbled onto the golf cart path and he stopped just before running them over. After a pause to gain control of his welling tears, Lopez concludes, “Life is precious, whether it’s a squirrel, or a human being.”
The movie is bookended by an interview with Fred Allen, the captain of the guards. He tells Herzog that one night, after yet another execution had gone according to procedure, he suddenly suffered a panic attack/haunting. Without warning, he “just started shaking” and envisioned the faces of all of those he had led to the chamber. Allen’s interview ends with a plaintive, seeming non sequitur, in which he quietly talks about the peace he has found now that he has quit his job (at the cost of losing his pension) and he’s able to simply “hold still, and watch the birds.”
Such personal revelations (which feel like confessions) are juxtaposed with evidence footage and travelogue imagery of the Texas landscape where the killings took place. Far from a strident political tract, Into the Abyss instead adopts the posture of an empathetic listener, allowing those whose lives have been most directly touched by capital punishment to quietly make its case.