The Rev. Richard Lopez tells of a pair of squirrels he almost ran over one day, when they stopped in front of his golf cart. He was able to save their lives, though, stepping on the brakes just in time.
But as a minister to the condemned in the state of Texas, he's powerless to spare the inmates who receive lethal injections as he stands by. All life is precious to Lopez, and the lives on those gurneys, the ones he can't pull back from death, hit him hard as he recalls those squirrels. As he draws this comparison at the start of Werner Herzog's Into the Abyss, he begins to weep.
It's a typically Herzogian moment: a memorable character unexpectedly and idiosyncratically expressing something simple and profound. But while Into the Abyss is instantly recognizable as a Herzog documentary, it's anything but typical.
Ostensibly a film about the death penalty, it concentrates on two young men convicted of a 2001 triple murder, committed in the course of a car theft. One, Michael Perry, has been sentenced to death; the other, Jason Burkett, received life in prison.
Herzog interviews both men, but isn't really interested in their defenses, in their claims of injustice -- each contends the other committed the murders without his involvement -- or in rational,statistical or correctional-science analyses of capital punishment. Herzog has never been an overtly political filmmaker, and what interests him here are the emotional and spiritual tolls that crimes of life and death take beyond the murders themselves -- the dark cloud of pain, anger, depression, resentment and remorse that spreads over the friends and family of everyone involved, eventually circling back on the criminal and triggering cycles of pain.
Departing from his normal style, in which he offers poetic or whimsical musings in voice-over, Herzog makes himself heard here only as interviewer. His usual pull toward fantastical embellishment and sly truth-bending is absent as well. In their place are extensive interviews and archival visuals, combined to create something with less obvious editorializing.
It's not that Herzog leaves his own stance a mystery. In his first interview with Perry, with his own ghostly image just barely visible in the glass that separates them, he makes it clear that while he believes there is no excuse for Perry's crimes, he also doesn't believe the young man -- or anyone else in his position -- should be put to death for them.
In the chapters that follow, though, it's as if he's challenging that very assertion. The first of the film's six chapters, "The Crime," details the senseless and gruesome murders with haunting crime-scene video that becomes oddly artful in Herzog's hands. He doesn't soften any aspect of the killing spree. And he devotes much of the film to long, often tearful interviews with the victims' relatives, as if to eliminate sympathy for the perpetrators.
Herzog strategically introduces new characters to his narrative, giving them the time to tell their stories, sometimes coaxing them down colorful tangents. One of the last such figures is Fred Allen, an officer at the death house who's helped carry out dozens of executions -- and who seems, in a chapter called "Protocol of Death," like no more than an expert brought in to describe the conditions that obtain there.
But Allen becomes central to the emotional heart of Into the Abyss. It becomes apparent, soon enough, that when you pull tight the straps on men who've lain down to die, it leaves a mark. Allen's presence ends up supporting the director's stance with a call to action, but there's never a suggestion that there's a black-and-white simplicity to the position. Herzog looks into darkness and sees nothing but shades of gray. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit www.npr.org.