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The inside track

Into the Abyss

(Club, IFI, 107 minutes)

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Director: Werner Herzog. Stars: Werner Herzog, Jason Burkett, Michael Perry.

Werner Herzog is a passionate opponent of the death penalty, and has wanted to make a documentary on the subject for years. While lesser filmmakers -- like Michael Moore, for instance -- would take their agenda and ram it down your throat accompanied by a barrage of indigestible facts, Mr Herzog is no hack polemicist.

In this slow-moving but totally engrossing film, he examines with near forensic precision a crime in Conroe, Texas, and its effect on all those involved in it. In October, 2001, two youths called Michael Perry and Jason Burkett were arrested on suspicion of having committed three spectacularly senseless murders. It seems the pair had arrived at the house of an acquaintance to steal his parents' sports car. In circumstances that remain unclear, they murdered him, a friend and his 50-year-old mother, and were arrested a few days later after a spectacular shootout.

Burkett was given 40 years in jail; Perry was sentenced to death by lethal injection, and is within in a week of his appointment with the needle when Herzog goes to talk with him.

Mr Herzog, who tends to make appearances in his documentaries but pointedly remains invisible here, is a brilliant interviewer of ordinary people.

His discussions from behind bullet-proof glass with Perry and Burkett are fascinating: he puts them at their ease and sympathises with them (though never dishonestly) and elicits psychological profiles of these limited, poor and semi-literate individuals. Herzog also talks to prison pastors and a guard who has overseen more than 120 executions to examine the death penalty's impact on the people who do the state's dirty work.

His talks with the crime's victims are especially moving: Lisa Stotler-Balloun lost her mother and brother on that senseless day, and calmly tells the filmmaker how she booked her seat at Perry's execution and went along to watch him die.

She describes the experience memorably, but seems ambivalent about whether that death really achieved anything in the end.

The great thing about Herzog's sombre, sober, morally serious film is that it lets you draw your own conclusions.

He seems to have deliberately chosen a crime so senseless that it's impossible to feel much sympathy for the killers, especially as they're not even honest enough to face up to what they've done -- despite a wealth of forensic evidence.

Herzog seems to be saying that if the death penalty doesn't make sense in this instance, then it never will.

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