Documentaries have specific purposes; to entertain, to inform, to examine and in some cases make changes. Some of the best documentaries have followed a person with an unusual passion or story, from Man on Wire to Grizzly Man. Others have a specific story to tell, The Imposter being the best example of such an incredible and baffling story, worthy of a documentary. The best documentaries, Project Nim being a perfect example, could well be a Hollywood film but work as a talking head examination of a story.
The person behind the camera makes a huge difference as well. Their passion and goals with the documentary shape the direction and format it will take. Michael Moore, regardless of your view about him, made some brilliant documentaries because of his passion and purpose. The same can be said for Morgan Spurlock and his fast food examination in Super Size Me.
Werner Herzog has already proved himself capable of making a fantastic, engaging and entertaining documentary with Grizzly Man. He studied the man, his motives and the presented his story in a sympathetic, detailed and engrossing way. There was a purpose with Grizzly Man – there doesn’t seem to be one with Into the Abyss.
The documentary as a whole is fantastically made, as you’d expect from experienced filmmaker Herzog. He has got interviews with everyone involved with the gruesome killings and events that the movie focuses on, from the victims families, the police involved and the criminals themselves. He presents the cases in incredible detail, taking a seemingly unbiased, step-by-step approach to telling the story of the criminals involved and their motives and interpretations of events.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t help feeling that the story I was being told wasn’t worthy of the documentary treatment. There is no real question of the criminals guilt. There is no extenuating circumstances or unusual aspects to the case that make it unique or extraordinary. It doesn’t seem to openly question the death sentence or the ways the criminals have been treated. It doesn’t seem to have an overt message and because of that, the film feels underwhelming.
There are fantastic examinations of the case, the way that criminals in America are treated on death row and how they are prepared for the death penalty. It has candid interviews with everyone from the parents of criminals on death row to other inmates who live in a more open environment, sharing their experiences. The movie uses this to let the viewer make up their own mind about the death sentence and appropriate treatment of criminals but never gives its own clear opinion or presents any information that any informed person wouldn’t already know. This means that if you already have an opinion on capital punishment and the death sentence, then this movie won’t change that.
There are some very interesting interviews, particular highlights being an interview with an executioner who questions his past actions, as well as the interviews with the criminals in question, one of which is still adamant of his innocence. Even though he claims he is still innocent, nothing is made of this that really questions what is happening and whether it is right.
The case chosen for this movie becomes more questionable after I watched an accompanying documentary series that seems to have been filmed at the same time or within a close time period. This series, entitled On Death Row, examines more unusual or questionable cases, with an eye towards change or raising debate and conflict. These shows were much more interesting and engaging because there was topic for debate. Into the Abyss doesn’t seem to offer this.
That is the biggest issue of the movie as a whole. At two hours long, the movie is a struggle to sit through and not feel slightly underwhelmed by the experience. I want to avoid the word boring but this movie will struggle to keep people’s attention in places, especially as you realise that there is nothing to this case to make it truly worthy of a documentary examination.
Overall, Werner Herzog has proved that he can professionally make a documentary, presenting a story in great detail, including interviews with everyone involved in the terrible murder and the punishment that follows. Unfortunately, the case itself doesn’t seem interesting enough or worthy of a documentary and because of that, the movie lacks purpose or direct focus. Instead we get a story without any biased view, something that would have helped make the movie much more entertaining.
(1 – Awful, 2 – Average, 3 – Good, 4 – Great, 5! – Must See)