'Into the Abyss'

"Werner Herzog is a funny man."

*** (out of four)

Which documentarian but Werner Herzog would prompt a reverend, who has been speaking in a cemetery about both executions and how much he enjoys seeing animals roaming a golf course, “Please describe an encounter with a squirrel”?

Herzog (“Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” “Grizzly Man”) has a natural curiosity for life’s odd, mysterious details. It’s life’s mysteries concerning truth, death and rehabilitation, he posits in “Into the Abyss,” that render the death penalty unjust.

The movie centers on convicted murderer Michael Perry, who awaits execution in eight days while his partner in crime, Jason Burkett, serves a life sentence. Herzog interviews those two as well as Burkett’s incarcerated father, the families of the deceased and others. Yet he doesn’t pursue a complex examination of capital punishment or even the definitive truth behind what happened in this case. (Certainly, whether or not the death penalty should have applied here doesn’t necessarily speak for all other cases.)

The filmmaker recognizes painful pieces of the story (one woman who was murdered was in the middle of baking cookies at the time) and the notion of permanence, seemingly to provoke thought and conversation about rehabilitation. Herzog asks a man who has his girlfriend’s name tattooed on his arm what will happen if the relationship ends. The man says he’ll just have to add “Sucks” beneath the name. Perhaps not an ideal solution, but proof that no decision is final until it’s your last.

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mpais@tribune.com. @mattpais