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Werner Herzog continues his exploration of the darkness and the light within the human spirit with “Into the Abyss,” a documentary about why and how we kill each other, in violation of the law and directed by it.

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In Texas, where as many as two prisoners are executed each week, Herzog speaks to the people connected to one crime, the senseless murder of three people by a couple of teenagers, who were just trying to steal a hot car.  Herzog remains off-camera as he interviews the men, now in their 20’s, who are in prison, one just days from his scheduled execution, the woman whose mother and brother were two of the victims, the chaplain and the correctional officer who are the last people the condemned prisoner sees, the police officer who investigated the crime, and others who help to tell the bleak story of loss and limits.

Herzog lets each of them tell us not just what they think but who they are.  He lets us discover for ourselves the telling details like the sign that says “Dream” over the fireplace in the living room of the corrections officer as he tells us that after over 100 executions he just could not do it any more and the tree growing through the floorboards of the car once deemed worth three lives, now rotting in the police impound lot.  We meet the father of one of the two prisoners whose only gift to his son was pleading with the jury not to sentence him to death.  A woman describes falling in love with one of the men in prison and marrying him there.  Both have surprises that confound our expectations.  Many of the interviews present a bleak portrait of limited vistas and opportunities alongside limitless need for love.

Indeed, no matter what views you bring to this film, you will come away enlarged, moved, changed as much from the compassion and generosity of Herzog himself as from the people he interviews. Herzog, who had just an hour with each of his subjects and shows us his first and only conversations with them, has made a film that expands his consideration of the human struggle for connection and meaning.

Parents should know that this is a documentary about the death penalty and the crimes of those sentenced to it.  It includes some crime scene images of murder victims and references to substance abuse and bad behavior.

Family discussion: Does this movie change your views on the death penalty?  What questions would you ask Michael Perry or Melyssa Burkett?  What made Captain Allen change his mind?

If you like this, try: “Dead Man Walking,” “At the Death House Door” and “Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead”

 

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