"Please describe an encounter with a squirrel.” It’s an unusual request in any context, much less an interview with a death-house chaplain recalling encounters with the condemned. But Werner Herzog is no ordinary interrogator.
The director has an immediately identifiable style, a flat yet curiously expressive cadence, inflected by his Bavarian roots, that lends an almost musical quality to his eccentric narration.
He rarely hesitates to inject himself into his documentaries, and does so again in “Into the Abyss,” about a triple homicide committed by two Texas teenagers — one of whom was executed nine years later for the crime.
But while Herzog casts an omnipresent shadow over the proceedings, he is mostly content, in “Abyss,” to cede the floor to his subjects: Michael James Perry, a 28-year-old condemned to die; Jason Burkett, his articulate accomplice; grieving relatives of the victims and the killers; and chaplain Richard Lopez, who respects life too much to strike a squirrel with his golf cart, but tearfully concedes his powerlessness to save men such as Perry from the needle.
At first, the movie seems no different from so many true-crime stories, but what distinguishes Herzog’s latest work from, say, an especially poignant episode of TruTV’s “The Investigators,” is the director’s tireless sense of wonder.
As in many of his fictional narratives, he struggles to illuminate the darkness of the human soul, to impose some sense of moral order on a tragedy born of chaos.
The crime is, by any standard, distressingly senseless. Two teenagers — “bad apples,” Herzog calls them — entered a small-town gated community intent on stealing a Camaro and left as murderers. They bragged about it afterward. The triggerman, Perry, ghoulishly went so far as to assume the identity of one of his victims.
Herzog never attempts to excuse Perry’s behavior, nor does he consider it necessary to befriend his subject, but he respects him enough as a fellow human being to decry his execution. Fair enough.
Supporters of capital punishment may not be swayed by the director’s objections, or even his attempts to understand the hard-luck upbringings that turned two kids — one of whom, Perry, had an IQ of 97 — into killers.
Regardless, Herzog doesn’t shy away from the gruesome facts, or the heartbreak Perry and Burkett left behind.
He has made moving documentaries before, among them “Grizzly Man” (2005) and last spring’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.” “Abyss” ranks with his best. This is vital, mesmerizing cinema, unequivocal in its denunciation of all kinds of murder.
Starring Jason Burkett, Werner Herzog, Michael James Perry, Jeremy Richardson
Written and directed by Werner Herzog
Running time 1 hour 47 minutes