Our natural obsession with when the final day of our existence will come is surely shaking the foundations of director Werner Herzog. A hard pill to swallow, Into the Abyss shows the mental toll a death sentence takes on those who, the vast majority, it seems, would agree deserve it. Constructing its narrative around the impending death that befalls those who are sentenced to live out their final days in prison, this documentary brings the fascinatingly cool, cold stylings of Herzog and implements them into a topic mired by controversy and activism. His offering is strong, one that carries its audience through a system that, for some, brings justice and closure through death.
Crucial to the survival of any good documentary, Herzog separates his personal feelings and thoughts on the death penalty with the subjects and information he looks to present. He is against the killing of prisoners, that much is clear, but he does not cater to his own ideas, nor does he hide anything that may undermine his point of view. He makes concessions, accepts that the other side of the debate has just as strong an argument as his. It is the talent of a balanced and honest filmmaker, that a man with convictions and thoughts on a subject can remove himself from the proceedings and deliver an unbiased, thoughtful and provoking documentary that wishes to understand the psyche and problems surrounding the system of inmate executions.
Much of the footage throughout is clear and to the point. Bogged down by true crime tones from time to time, the genre would soon expand and jolt to the tune of streaming services, but even in this primitive form, the tropes are present. Spending as much time on information about the crime as it does on the physical and mental impact, Into the Abyss paces itself nicely, but swerves further away from its message than expected. While its somewhat unfocused style here is a necessity to the onlooking presentation Herzog provides, it would be remiss to call Into the Abyss confused. An analysis of death row and criminal undertakings soon shifts from answering “Why?” into asking “How?”.
Herzog is sympathetic to those who, in the eyes of the law, do not deserve it. They are stripped of their humanity by the moral condemnation of judge and jury, soon to be executed and buried without a second thought given to them by the masses. His craft here only works as much as an audience can interact and accept the emotions of those who have done wrong. Into the Abyss does not question whether their actions are right or wrong, but probes the large questions that lurk in the shadows of capital punishment controversy. Prying at the emotions of reverends, prisoners and those that love or hate the men and women sentenced to Death Row, Into the Abyss and Herzog show that there is one common trait between their subjects. They are human.