Werner Herzog makes his intentions clear early in his powerful new documentary "Into the Abyss." "I do not think human beings should be executed," he says. "Simple as that." The moment is particularly charged because it's not stated in narration; he says it to Michael James Perry, a smiling 28-year-old who is days from execution. The filmmaker's word choice is telling—he does not speak of the "death penalty," which is the charged language of an issue. Mr. Herzog is less interested in the political implications than the philosophical ones.
Knowing the sort of complexities that Herzog has gravitated toward throughout his career, it's not surprising that he makes his case with something considerably less than a model inmate. Mr. Perry's death sentence is the result of a triple homicide in Conroe, Texas—a crime horrifying in its pettiness and shocking in the sheer heartlessness and stupidity of its perpetrators. Also convicted of the crime was Mr. Perry's friend Jason Aaron Burkett, but he received only a life sentence—primarily, it seems, because his father (a lifelong criminal himself) took the stand on his son's behalf and begged for the jury's mercy. It worked. Mr. Perry didn't have a similar witness, so he wasn't so lucky. Mr. Perry claims innocence, and Mr. Herzog gives him a minimal amount of screen time to make that claim, but there's not much doubt that the kid did it.
And this is what makes "Into the Abyss" a trickier picture (in terms of polemicism, anyway) than other documentaries about innocent men executed (like the recent "Incendiary: The Willingham Case") or rescued from death row ("The Thin Blue Line," "The Trials of Daryl Hunt," the "Paradise Lost" trilogy). It is easy to proclaim the injustice of capital punishment when we can point to the executions (both promised and delivered) of the innocent—but where do we stand on the guilty? When the execution of Troy Davis in September prompted demonstrations across the country, a few voices noted that Lawrence Brewer, one of the perpetrators of the grisly dragging murder of James Byrd, Jr., was executed on the same day, to considerably less protest. So, it seems, we only get really worked up about capital punishment when we think the recipient might be innocent. Doesn't that sort of invalidate the whole "playing God" argument? Mr. Herzog's documentary takes what tends to be a black-and-white issue and douses it in greys. Here is a heartless crime. Here is the man who did it. A jury decided he should die for his crime. Do you agree?