I thought Into the Abyss would kind of like the West Memphis Three documentaries, but because it’s Herzog (duh) it wasn’t as general and did not sweep over a large amount of time as those do. It’s kind of a microcosm of close, intense, but somewhat unexplored glances at a triple homicide in Conroe, Texas that resulted in one man in prison for life and one executed. For example, and unless i was mistaken, both men convicted of the murders maintained their innocence. i’d like to know why that wasn’t pursued further within the documentary.
i thought it was interesting seeing Herzog, someone I view as an auteur and oh so very European, interact with these Texan people. I want to know how he got these folks to open up to him. He asks these really great leading questions that get these deep emotional responses, perhaps more emotional than the person answering them expected. I feel like sometimes the subjects are just kind of entertaining the more personal questions that don’t relate to the murders, like when Herzog is asking this good ol’ boy about how he learned how to read the last time the guy was in jail. Clearly Herzog is intrigued about someone learning to read so late in life and how he made it through so far with being illiterate, and it’s also clear the guy doesn’t want to talk about it or go with the super introspective direction Herzog starts taking the conversation.
This movie is also about the nature of small towns and how shitty they can be, with the cycle of no escape that makes people turn to illegal stuff. I have plenty of family in small towns like Conroe and believe it or not, it is really hard to break out of that life when you’re born into it. Part of me wonders if the Abyss he’s referring to in the title not only has meaning for the wretched path of murder, imprisonment, or execution but also about the insanity that can thrive in little towns everywhere. Plus, the absurdity of the orignal crime that perpetuated the murders doesn’t surprise me in a place like that—the guys wanted to steal a slick car and decided to murder three people to get it.
In typical Herzog fashion, it’s not an overdone piece. There are aren’t a lot of super extreme dramatic montages or long shots with overbearing music or any narration besides scene chapter titles, just starkness with people talking about their experiences. I think it’s the thing I liked the most about Into the Abyss—he does ask very good questions but the end result of the movie made it seem like he just lets these people talk. And the camera listens. And we listen. I wonder if a lot of these folks, like the retired death row warden, the chaplain, and the woman who was a sister and daughter to two of the victims had ever had a chance to speak their piece about the incident. There’s something that happens when you tell a whole story from your perspective to someone who’s never heard it before, who just wants to listen. I think it brings up different and complicated emotions to retell this whole saga of pain to practically a stranger.
One a lighter note— one of the best parts that made me laugh a little is when he’s interviewing one of the convicted guys who is complaining about how his parents made him go on an Outward Bound canoeing trip when he was a kid, and how lousy it was being outside with bugs and stuff. He probably had no idea that Herzog spent all that hellish time in jungles making Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre: The Wrath of God.
I know all of Herzog’s documentaries aren’t all about the great outdoors, but this is the first one I’ve seen that focuses on human subjects (well, maybe Grizzly Man too). Nature is beautiful and ugly and overwhelming, and I like that he shows that people can be that way too.