Into the Abyss ★★★½

A no-frills account of a seemingly open-and-shut triple murder case and how the execution of one of the perpetrators (and capital punishment in general) impacts the others involved, rippling outward to encompass both sides of the law and every possible perspective on the death penalty. The interviews Herzog chooses to include often ache with loss and despair, perhaps most hauntingly one with a former Texas executioner, who quit because of PTSD, but frankly nearly all of them are troubling and fascinating.

It just isn't much of a movie. Apart from crime scene videos that are judiciously edited, it's mostly a strict formula of establishing shots and talking heads. I feel guilty but I have to laugh at the weird back avenues Herzog finds in order to make his films -- he gets his unmistakble if soothing voice into IMAX theaters for Cave of Forgotten Dreams then manages to barge in on Investigation Discovery's racket. In some ways this is just a Forensic Files episode but with a moral compass and with many more troubling emotional beats. The final message is ambiguous; there's no mistaking Herzog's own opinion, but he gives everyone their voice, which is welcome. Herzog keeps his love of weirdness and perversity at bay -- even closing us out on a throwaway remark about hummingbirds doesn't come across as a conspicuously auteurist move, it's just poignant -- except when he's interviewing the wife of the accomplice who just got a life sentence and has a really uncomfortable fixation on how she became pregnant. Still, I can't help thinking that while this is ostensibly a chance to look at all of the implications of state-sponsored executions, part of the appeal for Herzog was looking into the absolute void of the small dividing line between life and death, as the title implies. And I don't mind that -- especially because we didn't get an extended voiceover laying it out explicitly!