Into the Abyss

"INTO THE Abyss" introduces us to a pair of flagrantly guilty killers - one about to die by lethal injection, one serving life.

They are unrepentant, unwilling to admit to their obvious roles in a senseless triple murder. They tell the most preposterous cover stories and point the finger at one another.

No honor among thieves/killers, no remorse, no sense of responsibility, no compassion for the victims or their suffering families, who are interviewed extensively.

Nothing, really, to stir the slightest sympathy for the killers, plenty to fuel disgust.

But what if killing them, loathsome as they are, exacts some kind of societal price, impossible to calculate but dangerous to ignore?

Posing this question and attempting to come up with a cosmic answer is filmmaker Werner Herzog, who's flourished in recent years making eccentric documentaries (his "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" is one of my favorite films of 2011).

In "Abyss," he takes an abstract Herzogian look at violent crime and its complex aftershocks. He talks to the murderers, profiles the victims, talks to the living relatives of both the victims and the killers.

What develops is a disturbing profile of a rural Texas community where disintegrated families produce a culture dominated by substance abuse, violence, illiteracy and other problems.

Herzog has said the movie shows the danger of collapsing family values (which is true), and denies that his movie has anything to do, really, with capital punishment.

But it does.

Herzog makes a startling insertion late in the movie, introducing us to a former death row guard - the captain of the Texas lethal injection squad - who talks about the cumulative affect of killing 100 or so inmates, sometimes at the rate of two per week.

One day, the face of a dead inmate appears to him, and he finds that he is simply unable to stop the subsequent flood of images, the faces of all the people he has put to death. Lawfully, carefully, professionally and with a compassion lacking in the killers themselves; nonetheless, he's stricken.

It's a breathtaking piece of documentary footage, made so by the gentleman's plainspoken words. What does it mean? Open to question, certainly, but the executioner's method of dealing with these nightmares has its own eloquence.

"Abyss" gets stranger and more startling still, with an epilogue detailing the surviving inmate's jailhouse romance - it's appalling, really, but in its own way as illuminating as what's come before.

A movie about death becomes a rumination of the rudely insistent nature of life, which augurs against all attempts to snuff it out.

Into the Abyss

Directed by Werner Herzog. With Werner Herzog. Distributed by IFC Films.

Running time: 1 hours, 46 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (for mature thematic material and some disturbing images).