Thursday, 1 December 2011

Oscars 2011 — INTO THE ABYSS

Werner Herzog's latest is an exploration into the unknown.

Unfortunately, one of the unknowns is the message (or intention) he wants to send across. 

In truth, I'm a professed Herzog fan. But really, it's hard not to like him. His topics are genuinely interesting, and you can tell he always cares about his subjects. Truth be told, the same can't be said about other filmmakers. And even though I find his latest work to be a lesser film of his, I legitimately applaud Herzog for taking a step into the unknown. Making a film about death and life — not life and death — is likely quite tolling. Such is the case when you make a movie about death row.

Most of Herzog's documentaries are imbued with his unique brand of narration, but Into The Abyss sadly does not. In most of his films, whenever there isn't on-screen dialogue, Herzog tends to sprinkle philosophical chestnuts here and there, and the result is generally a sense of deep and profound insight. As one of Herzog's greatest skills is getting people thinking, I'm sad to report that this is one of his weaker conversation starters.

There is actually zero narration in Into The Abyss, which is a real shame. Hell, Herzog's narrator voice could read the phone book and it would please me immensely. Instead, Herzog focuses entirely on talking to his subjects — which is fine, and I enjoy this more candid approach, but issues are abound. There's moments where he clashes with his interview subject, and they talk over each other trying to get the last word in. In some instances, he even resembles Michael Moore: he asks a few questions to the death row inmates that seem solely intended to provoke an interesting response. I don't necessarily blame him for wanting a better film, but it comes across as messy and a little childish. "Messy" is not a term I would usually summon when discussing Herzog, but there it is.

Michael Perry, death row inmate. Convicted of a triple homicide.
As I write this, I realize the film's poster has a quote referencing In Cold Blood, and I suppose they are fairly comparable. Unfortunately, with Into the Abyss, Herzog veers dangerously into talking-head syndrome territory. While some testimonials are heartbreaking, some of them seem overly long and are pretty redundant. As is, interviews of death row inmates (and the people whose lives they've impacted) make up about 90% of the film; the remaining 10% is police footage from the crime scenes in question. These archival clips are grim and illustrate the interviews very appropriately, and with a very tasteful amount of crime scene gore.

The film is shot on location in Conroe, Texas, which by all accounts in the film is a town with a lot of problems. Illiteracy and crime seem to be numbers 1 and 2, which Herzog cheekily comments on a number of times. Like I said before, it seems a little unfair.

As it begins to wrap up, you begin to realize Into The Abyss is about 20 to 30 minutes too long to be really effective. Although Herzog has gone on record insisting the film is apolitical, it's naive to actually take his word as truth. Make no mistake: the film is definitively against the death penalty, even though Herzog strays from making any conclusion as to the inmates' guilt or innocence. There are a number of statements in the film (some made directly by Herzog) that are against capital punishment, and the both the opening and closing scenes are tear-stricken interviews with people directly commenting on the ethics of it all. I'm not complaining, but this is film is a sort of argument; an unclear essay on capital punishment. An essay that needs some paragraphs excised. What is he trying to say about death? What is he trying to say about Conroe, Texas? What's the film overarching message? It's muddled.

As a thought-provoker, there are better Herzog films to leave you scratching your head. As a rumination on the ethics of capital punishment, there are clearer, more concise documentaries to look at. While this case study is both sad and in many cases upsetting, Into The Abyss is a few too many interviews long to really give us a direct understanding of Herzog's intentions. I don't see it being nominated for a Documentary Oscar.



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