Werner Herzog has become such a celebrity---he's even playing the villain in an upcoming Tom Cruise movie---that it's easy to forget he can still make an incisive documentary. We say still because lately, his behind-the-camera efforts have substituted spaciness for scholarship, as in last year's lazy Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Happily, Herzog is back in tougher form with this slow-burner of an anti-death-penalty piece, the first half of which unpacks a 2001 triple murder committed by two thrill-seekers who basically wanted a red Camaro. We see the crime scene in spooky night-of-homicide police video and come to the belief that these were bad men.
But Herzog doesn't let us off so easily, as he quietly interrogates the blissed-out killer Michael Perry days before his execution and, separately, Perry's abetting partner, Jason Burkett. Distinctions of humility insinuate the film, along with a chorus of emotional voices: still-wrecked siblings of the victims, Burkett's guilt-ridden dad (also incarcerated), the reverend presiding over the death chamber. Ultimately what emerges is a vital, sometimes funny yet never snobby look at a disadvantaged milieu doomed by bad judgment and wasted time. Into the Abyss is too self-admiring of its own loose ends to come to the indictment that would put it in the company of The Thin Blue Line, but these personalities stay in your head---which is the whole point.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf