Werner Herzog does something great reporters know how to do: He listens. He pays attention during conversation. He's so in-the-moment, he instinctively asks the natural follow-up question, and that's what often elicits the greatest honesty and the most unexpected emotion.
And so in his latest documentary, "Into the Abyss," Herzog turns an earnest, low-key interview with a prison chaplain into a sudden outburst of tears, merely by asking the gentleman to relay an anecdote about a squirrel he saw on a golf course. Perhaps it's his very presence that makes people feel so safe; approaching 70, the veteran director quietly probes his subjects' histories in that mesmerizing, instantly recognizable and often-imitated German accent of his. But he also seems genuinely engrossed in the subjects he tackles, and that purity of interest shines through.
In taking on a divisive topic like the death penalty - especially in a place like Texas, where the punishment is more prevalent than in other states - Herzog never seems to be judging the people on the other side of his camera. Unlike some of his other documentaries like "Grizzly Man," for example, he doesn't insert himself in the story. He states at the outset that he's opposed to capital punishment, but then goes on to interview the various people associated with a bloody triple murder without injecting that opinion. He simply lets them tells their stories. And he listens.
It's hard not to be moved by the gruesome and horrifically needless crime he's exploring; comparisons to "In Cold Blood" aren't just apt, they're inescapable. In 2001, three people were shot to death over a red Chevrolet Camaro near Conroe, Texas, just north of Houston: 50-year-old Sandra Stotler, her teenage son and a friend of the boy. Herzog knows he doesn't need to embellish the graphic crime scene footage he shows; it's startling enough on its own.
The convicted killers, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, knew Stotler's son and only meant to break into their house to steal the car, but the crime went horribly wrong. Perry was sentenced to death for Stotler's murder, and Herzog spoke to him in prison just eight days before his July 1, 2010, execution. Perry found religion behind bars, as is so often the case. He smiles a lot through the pane of glass separating him and Herzog. He's beyond calm; he's almost upbeat.
Burkett, meanwhile, was tried separately and is serving a life sentence for killing the two boys. He found a wife behind bars, as is also so often the case - a woman named Melyssa who read about his case, began corresponding with him and eventually became his bride. There's a chilling stillness in his eyes. He speaks matter-of-factly about the kind of future he might have, but also about his past.
That's an avenue Herzog wants to travel down, as well. Aside from talking to investigators on the case and the survivors who tearfully tell what it's like living each new day without their loved ones, Herzog wants to know what shaped these two young men. Perry was pretty much homeless when the crime occurred, but Burkett seems to have been doomed long before then. His father, Delbert, was in and out of prison throughout his childhood and is currently serving a 40-year sentence of his own. He also opens up to Herzog and gets choked up recalling the Thanksgiving he spent with his fellow-inmate son. He describes how he felt like a failure on what should have been a joyful holiday. As extreme as their situation is, every parent can relate to that sensation.
Regardless of your own stance on the death penalty, it's impossible not to be shaken by the senseless loss depicted in "Into the Abyss," the overwhelming sadness, but also the possibility of spiritual redemption. Herzog lets all these complicated dynamics speak for themselves, and then lets us decide.
"Into the Abyss," an IFC Films release, is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material and some disturbing images. Running time: 106 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.