Link to a formal review at the end.
Werner Herzog’s on a really long roll. This documentary, alongside his earlier Caves of Forgotten Dreams from 2011, is hypnotic and quite different from what you might expect upon hearing the subject matter: a triple homicide.
Herzog’s subject here is at first two death row inmates, but the scope soon expands far beyond that – to the families of the alleged killers and victims, friends, and wives. If this is dissection then it’s like cutting open at the correct area and then continuing to slice lines in all sort of digressive directions. Herzog doesn’t want to tell a horror story, solve a mystery, or talk pulp fact. He wants to make clear his anti-capital punishment bias, and keep the rest surprisingly unbiased in an earnest look at those affected by crime. An interview with an old friend of one of the accused is particularly interesting: funny and awkward at first, Herzog’s strange line of questioning (his incredulity at the fact that this guy has a job) soon finds a point – this man went in a different direction than his former friend.
This is a film that features a lot of hard, jump cuts. Why not try to hide the style? On one hand it’s more of an honest, even ironic usage: everyone knows that documentaries are edited after the fact and that we’re getting a subjective view as edited by the filmmaker. By leaving the cuts in Herzog’s piece feels less manipulative – he shows us that he’s cutting out sections, that he’s skipping around in time. He keeps this ace up his sleeve, but he shows us that it’s there. The technique also allows him to echo his voiceover ruminations on time…one of his career obsessions. In Into the Abyss, the director is fascinated with the unreliability of time once one starts a prison sentence. His alternating technique therefore – jump cuts as opposed to lyrical long shots (ie birds flying), compress and expand time formally and in his own right. It’s like he’s trying to capture prison time outside of the prison.
One last quick note here. Herzog divides his films into chapters, including a prologue. This division is a noteworthy strategy. On one hand it allows him to easily jump from topic to topic without feeling choppy. The divisions act as segue and as quick introduction to what’s about to come. But these chapters are also significant in how they break up the pacing. Instead of a full-tilt murder story, Herzog’s film starts and stops. It doesn’t lurch, it just sort of rises and falls from chapter to chapter – ebbs and flows. He uses this to his advantage to steer the audience away from what, when the film first begins, might be the expectation – the who, what and why of the actual murders. Were this film not divided, were it to just move straight ahead in a three act structure, we’d expect, by minute 20 or so, to start getting into the gritty details of the crime. Instead, around minute 20, we get a chapter divider. We get a breather. Herzog redirects us, and before we know it we’re somewhere else entirely.