An egalitarian study of crime and punishment in a small southern town, Into the Abyss is also an unmistakably Herzogian inquiry into the lawlessness of the human soul. That would be the abyss of the title, though if you're looking for more of that kind of shameless lyrical swagger, you might be disappointed by the documentary's lack of Werner Herzog's signature, Cousteau-on-quaaludes narration. Here the director is a more spectral presence, an outsider in Conroe, Texas, warmly urging on his subjects — including the two young men convicted of three particularly senseless murders — from behind the camera. Told through the lens of character, Abyss has the design of a nose-to-tail true crime story like In Cold Blood but lacks its immersive texture and comprehensive scope.
Herzog had only half an hour with each prisoner, one of whom — 28-year-old Michael Perry — was scheduled for execution eight days after their 2010 interview. Ten years after their convictions, neither man cops to killing a middle-aged woman, her son, and another teenager. Each is petulant in their blame of the other; the long stretch of crime scene footage that opens the film accompanied by a pleading string progression and the description given by the detective assigned to the case tells a different story. Instead the prisoners talk of their upbringing, their families, their exploits on the outside. Perry comes off as a genial cipher, while his handsome partner, Jason Burkett, who was sentenced to life, emerges in greater dimension. Herzog seeks out Burkett's incarcerated father as well as his correspondence bride, who, by the end of the film, is pregnant with Burkett's child.
Equal time is given to the family members of the murdered, each of whom makes a kind of victim statement while brandishing framed pictures of their loved ones. Choked pauses and dangling close-ups are pushed for ecstatic effect; Herzog's opposition to the death penalty is clear, but loaded aesthetic overtures are made to both sides of the argument. His subjects — including a death chamber chaplain and a former executioner — often veer from testimony to intimate tangent, moments arranged to form the film's gothic microcosm. Compelling as portraiture but short of a profound whole, Abyss is at its totalizing best when it recalls the courtroom observation of another Perry, Truman Capote's murderer-muse: "I'll be damned if I'm the only killer in the room."