German filmmaker Werner Herzog is my favorite filmmaker of all time. Thanks to Netflix, you can watch many of the dozens of films he has made since the 1970s. Usually his works are character studies of real humans on the edge, and they are on edges that most people never knew existed in this world. He’s not interested in big space ships or cartoonish rescuers of our wonderful capitalist Christian culture. His characters live in this world, but don’t occupy the same mental space as the average American.
Into the Abyss is a documentary about two men guilty of a grisly triple murder in Texas. One faces a life sentence; the other is scheduled to be executed at the end of the week. They and their associates, and friends seem to have ice water for blood, and seem to go through life in a trance of their own invention. Nothing they do in their lives seems to make sense, though they go through it with passion and a remarkable inability to deal with the realities of their terrible situations.
To describe the characters or events will be spoiling the story, because Herzog carefully crafts the documentary to reveal just little bits and pieces at a time, like the best mystery writers. When you discover what’s really going on, it’s like 110 volt jolt to your brain. It’s enough to say that every character seems quite normal in the beginning, but as they tell their stories, layers fall away and unspeakable inner tragedies are revealed. Out of the thousands of murders that are committed each year in the U.S., how Herzog picks this particular one to follow, with such complex levels of deeply hidden events and stricken personalities is amazing. Or you can come away with the idea that actually maybe everyone is insane, if you spend a little time looking at them, and allow them to reveal themselves.
This is the theme of many of Herzog’s films. He isn’t content with headlines. He wants to enter the abyss. He digs and digs until his fingernails are raw and bleeding, and freely admits that when he sees the entire story, it can be so emotionally scaring that he refuses to burden his audience with it. He’ll tell you about it, and give you tantalizing little hints, but the sensational is not the point. It’s how people deal emotionally with the sensational in life that is important. It is a unique viewpoint, and bless Werner Herzog for taking it.
Into the Abyss is 188 minutes long, twice that of your average movie, and it’s mostly talking heads. But it is a haunting, shocking journey about strangers in a land that we might think is familiar, but is not. Don’t miss this masterpiece.