Tag Archives: documentary

Peter and the Farm Movie Review

My review for the Eagle newspaper

Title notwithstanding, Peter and the Farm is a documentary about Peter and, as an afterthought, his farm. If you are looking for pastoral poesy, this is not the film for you. If you are looking for a bird’s eye-view of a farmer’s life, well, this is not it either. A film about a curmudgeonly, self-obsessed man who is not particularly likeable? Most definitely.

Director Tony Scott follows 68-year-old Peter Dunning’s life on his farm in Vermont. Considering the setting, there is surprisingly little insight about farming per se. The viewers do get some exposure to the back-breaking grind that it is, for example, to make bales of hay with machinery that breaks down daily. This scene will disabuse you of any ideas about the neatness of those bales.

There is a great deal of visceral footage, quite literally. There is a blood-and-gore-and-viscera scene of Peter slaughtering a sheep—selling organic meats at the local farmer’s market is how Peter earns a living as a farmer. The shot, however, is incredibly gratuitous. One has to wonder why Scott even included it. Speaking of which, this is a question viewers might have many times throughout this film; yes, this is supposed to be a stream of consciousness opus, but about half of the film is Peter’s mumbling through tenuously connected stories and non-sequiturs. A more stern editing hand would have been a boon to this film.

Peter and the Farm suffers from too contrived of an attempt to be arthouse and instead simply ends up…arty. A scene in which Scott zooms in on the dead face of a coyote Peter has killed is unabashedly “oh, look how deep and metaphorical this is.” Except that it is not. In attempting to take us down the rabbit hole that is Peter’s life as an alcoholic, the film’s atmosphere captures the same heavy quagmire and nightmare that Peter is suffering through. In other words, the drudgery of Peter’s life is unloaded on the viewers, who must also begrudgingly get through the film.

Peter, an artist and poet of sorts, has lost all four children and his three wives to his alcoholism. While his despair and depression is palpable, it is hard to muster up pathos when he spends the entire film railing, howling and lashing out. It is hard to feel sympathy when we are presented with exactly how he has pushed everyone away from him. “There’s not a part of this farm that has not been scattered with my sweat, my piss, my blood, my spit, my seed, my sh*t, my tears, fingernails, skin, and hair. I’ve spread and lost hope over every acre. This farm becomes me. I’ve become the farm,” he bemoans. This statement is one of the most poignant revelations of the film—that the farm is all that is left for this man.

Peter and the Farm succeeds in giving the viewer access inside the harrowing,  quotidian existence of one particular farmer. While broader social commentary is lacking, it is, nevertheless, compelling in that it dispels romanticized ideas of bucolic paradises and other idylls of this ilk.

Grade: C

AFI Documentaries 2016 Reviews

My reviews of the 2016 AFI documentaries


Directed by Ellen Martinez, Steph Ching

Zaatari, a refugee camp in Jordan, was built in 2012, a year after war broke out in Syria. It now houses most of Syria’s refugees—about 80,000 residents, more than half of whom are children. Ellen Martinez and Steph Ching’s documentary After Spring, executive produced by Jon Stewart, offers a look at life inside this city of tents. After Spring, unlike some other documentaries on the camp, does not romanticize the “look, there are shops and cell phones and restaurants” aspect of Zaatari. In fact, it underlines the bittersweet reading of this—that this camp has existed for so long and that with only 1% of refugees worldwide being granted asylum, this camp is life, and not some temporary limbo they must pass through and endure. A Korean teacher builds a Tae Kwon Do school for the children, but education and care are hard to come by—not because Zaatari is mismanaged but because Zaatari relies on the largesse of the World Food Program and other donors for any of its services.
After Spring offers a look at life of precarity, uncertainty, and struggle, that is, sadly, the closest semblance to normalcy and home for millions of people worldwide.


Directed by Pieter-Jan de Pue

The Land of the Enlightened is a docu-fiction, a fairly unusual film format. Shot over seven years on 16mm film, it’s stirringly beautiful and fairytale-like. A band of children (who jokingly call themselves “brass bandits”) live in an old abandoned Soviet base in Afghanistan and survive by trading in opium, discarded shells, lapis lazuli, and any other wares they might chance upon during their caravan-robbing escapades. Director Pieter-Jan de Pue also offers footage from one of the last remaining U.S. military bases, while a narrator intersperses stories of a great king in Afghanistan’s history. One of the film’s most visceral scenes shows American soldiers shelling and shooting at a hill, where someone is hiding. The image of nature being blasted into smithereens by a relentless onslaught of firepower makes for heavy emotional viewing and offers a unique take on what war actually looks like. The children are neither powerful nor powerless—they neither want your pity, nor can one forget that they never had a childhood. They drift through the wreckage of a war-ravaged reality, salvaging and scavenging.


Tempestad is a trenchant commentary on the human cost of government corruption in Mexico. Mexico-based director Tatiana Huezo (The Tiniest Place) tells the story of two women—Miriam, a mother and a Cancun Airport worker, arrested on false charges of human trafficking and sent to a prison run by the Gulf Cartel, and Adela, a circus clown, whose daughter disappeared and has never returned, likely abducted by a cartel. Huezo never shows Miriam; instead the film is an evocative riff on everyday life in Mexico—images of people riding a bus, people working at a market make for an innovative (for documentary film-making) technique, which isn’t as befuddling to the viewer as one might think. Tempestad allows the voices of the two women to weave a story devoid of patois and bare in its brutality. Miriam describes herself as one of the country’s many “pagadores”—people literally made to pay with their lives, so the government may pretend it is doing its job. The “prison” she is sentenced to asks Miriam’s family to pay $5000 to “respect her life” and $500 each week thereafter for her “keep.” Those unable to pay are murdered. Tempestad unsettles in a profound way; villains shift shapes and the people are the ones buffeted about in this powerful tempest.

Ivory Tower Documentary Review

My review of Ivory Tower

Ivory Tower, the new documentary by Andrew Rossi (Page One: Inside the New York Times), posits itself as the long-overdue expose on the as-broken-as-our-healthcare higher education system. Sadly, this far too diffuse and roving film takes on too much, in the end, not really succeeding in offering a cogent, tidy argument. It would have benefited from a strong dose of good ol’ critical thinking and thesis-honing.
The film opens on the premise that there are problems in all sectors of higher education, problems so large that they are undermining the very idea of higher education and its life value. We are introduced to an African-American freshman with a rather compelling story–”from homeless to Harvard.” Ivory Tower follows his experience through the hallowed halls of Harvard, which actually appears to be well-deserving of its rarefied status and remains one of the last remaining bastions of meritocracy in higher ed. It also is a part of a rather small group of only 1.25% of U.S. colleges that grant full-need financial aid packages and have fully transparent, need-blind admissions.
Ivory Tower then launches into a meandering argument that fails to explain the feedback loop of sky-rocketing higher ed costs. It argues that since colleges are competing against each other and seeking to expand their markets (yes, get used to the idea that American college education is a business), they are driven to create more programs and build more (and fancier) facilities at a faster rate than their competitors. Enter Arizona State University, which has “luxury suites,” with pools and DJs for the privileged few who have come to college for the “student experience,” a thinly-veiled euphemism for beer and circuses ala Spring Breakers (what happened to the simpler days where that meant the more grown-up version of Dead Poets’ Society!?).

The film cannot possibly expect the viewers to think that college tuition is rising so exponentially (1120% increase since 1980; more than any other good in the economy) because colleges built more modern buildings, paid their presidents six digit salaries, and hired a few more administrators, do they? Ivory Tower‘s focus on these construction booms and colleges being turned into mini cities, while a valid point, really does not cover the scope of a system whose issues are so endemic that the explanatory variables are many and they are very, very enmeshed.
The thorny beyond measure issue of student is explored rather shallowly here. All we find out is that it has now reached the hair-raising 1 trillion mark. There is one really salient point, however–unlike with the mortgage crisis, there is no “safety valve.” There is no foreclosure or bankruptcy; the interest keeps accruing inexorably, saddling students and generations after with a debt that is onerous beyond measure.
Past that point, Ivory Tower starts to digress even more, launching into a shallow exploration of whether college has any value and focusing on the “hackademic” movement in San Francisco and the Thiel Fellowship, created by the founder of PayPal. Again, while incredibly interesting as a piece of information in itself, it is not particularly relevant. It also explores the rather ill-fated experiment that San Jose State University conducted in having Udacity teach most of their entry level math classes. The case study of the students at Cooper Union’s struggle to maintain the tuition-free status of the university is explored fat too in-depth.
Ivory Tower would have been a much more compelling film had it not chosen to focus on so many subjects. As it stands now, we are still left unsure why is tuition rising so astronomically (and not just at private schools but also at fund-strapped state schools) and where *are* tuition dollars going if most of the classes are taught by near-minimum-wage earning adjuncts in cavernous classrooms of hundreds of students. We are also left with a cursory, at best, glance at the implications of a trillion dollar student debt. Instead, the tangents of “do we really need a college education,” and “is the college education now just another excuse for partying,” and “can technology save us all,” are delved into in a rather questionable stroke of directorial decision-making.

AFI Documentaries Preview

AFI Docs 2014

112 Weddings
Filmmmaker Doug Block spent two decades working as a wedding videographer. In 112 Weddings, he revisits some of the couples he saw walk down the aisle, looking to find answers about the nature of marriage and whether the proverbial wedded bliss materialized for them. The premise seems rather interesting; unfortunately, the stories of the couples are not particularly compelling. One theme that emerges is that almost all of them had kids and that, boy, having children is really hard (serious newsflash here) and has the potential to really rock a relationship. Aside from that, it becomes pretty obvious that it is hard to encapsulate married life into sound bites culled together from brief interviews.
Some of the couples featured are a pair of Burner-types, who post a “partnership ceremony” and 13 years together decide to go traditional and marry; a comically uptight American married to a Korean violinist; some Brooklyn hipster-types; and  David Bromberg, screenwriter of the indie flick Dedication, whose love of prescription drugs and general manic-ness make for some tragic scenes. And of course, we have the requisite “my husband is cheating on me,” couple as well. Overall, the couples featured, lesbian couple notwithstanding, are fairly homogeneous. Longitudinal study this is not. And for the fun subject that this is, this movie is surprisingly not terribly fun. On the flip side, it is also not gloomy enough to make one get serious cold feet-itis about marriage or to denounce “the institution,” for that matter either. It’s fairly light fare, but it does leave the viewer longing for a little less fluff.

Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts 2014

My coverage of the Oscar-nominated documentary shorts 2014

Facing Fear, directed by Jason Cohen

Facing Fear recounts of tale of crossed paths, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Los Angeles’ Museum of Tolerance staffer Matthew Boger meets reformed neo-Nazi Tim Zaal to discuss a talk by Zaal. In the process of comparing notes about their days in LA, when Matthew was a homeless street kid, they realize that Zaal was the neo-Nazi who kicked Matthew in the face and left him for dead. The film is not only an examination of forgiveness, but a rare glimpse into the psychology of hate. “Violence made me feel big, elated. It was like a drug, the adrenaline of it.” And like a drug, it stopped working, Zaal explains. In a particularly poignant scene, he recounts how seeing one of his own kids talking like a racist made him feel profoundly ashamed and disgusted. It was the epiphany that turned him away from the movement he lived in for decades. He is humbled by Matthew’s ability to forgive him and recounts the flip-side as well, which is how difficult it was for him to forgive himself.

Cave Digger, directed by Jeffrey Karoff
There is a fine line between madness and genius, the story goes, and Ra Paulette is the epitome of the ardent, borderline maniacal zeal that burns inside many artists. Ra digs cathedral-like art caves into the sandstone cliffs of New Mexico.The labor is grinding and physically arduous beyond measure: he toils for years on each one. The patrons who commission his work  do not share in his obsession and there is ensuing friction, a wry commentary on the push-and-pull between art and business. They want to have input; Ra says he is not a “paintbrush.” Valid points on both ends, indeed. Tired of taking commissions, Ra starts a massive self-funded 10-year cave project. Cave Digger could have been the live action version of the Bhagavad Gita, with Ra’s insistence on not being tied to the results but just enjoying the process of creation.

Karama Has No Walls, directed by Sara Ishaq
In a similar vein to The Square, Karama Has No Walls explores a tragedy that left 53 people dead at Change Square in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, during the 2011 Arab Spring. The short shines a light on the often-forgotten cost of the peaceful protests. While the protestors themselves were peaceful, they were subjected to incredible violence by a regime refusing to concede defeat. The image of snipers shooting at a crowd from above is a scathing commentary on political oppression and the high cost of liberty.
The Lady In Number 6: Music Saved My Life, directed by Malcolm Clarke
“Music is a dream. Music is God.” The lady is number 6 is Alice Herz Sommer, a 109 year old pianist and Holocaust survivor. A soul-stirring paean to the transformative power of music, the film documents Alice’s unbridled love for it. Her love is unmarred because music literally saved her life as she was spared from the worst fate in the concentration camps (the Nazis exploited her gift). Alice’s natural ebullience make the film thoroughly engrossing.


Facing Fear is the most compelling because of the sheer scope of emotions and human experience it covers: from Matthew’s own feelings about his sexuality, making peace with a family that put him out on the street at 13, and Tim’s acceptance of a life spent living a way that he now finds abhorrent. Facing Fear is true to its title. Skeletons are big and small, monsters hide in the darkest recesses of our hearts, and the ultimate redemption that also lies there as well, if we know how to look for it.
* We were unable to review Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall.

2013 Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts Article

 2013 Oscar Documentary Shorts Article

This year’s crop of documentary shorts is heart-wrenching and tear-inducing in the way that only reality can be. You can see them all for yourself at West End Cinema.

Kings Point, Directed by Sari Gilman

In the 1970s and 1980s, retiring New Yorkers moved to Kings Point, Florida, excited by the balmy climate, palm trees, and $1500 down payment on a home. Sari Gilman, whose Grandmother Ida also lived at Kings Point, lets this community tell their own stories. The result is a film neither maudlin nor contrived but incredibly poignant in its portrayal of the reality of aging. The residents find themselves grappling with love, loss, illness, death, and the scariest specter of all–loneliness. “You try to fill your days as best as you can,” is the greatest of seemingly prosaic yet totally not tragedies and a stark commentary on modern life. The people who moved there to find companionship in their old age face some of the same difficulties that people of younger age do too–forming bonds. Nothing is more heart-wrenching than being sick or dying alone, however. Ironically enough the very self-reliant spirit that drove these folks to move down to Florida now has them so incredibly far away from family and life-long friends. As one of the residents explains, “You don’t make friends here. You have good acquaintances…it is all about self-preservation.” Kings Point is incredibly engrossing in that it presents a look at a population often reduced to the hollow description of “the seniors in Florida.” It’s a trenchant commentary on a future that we all have to contend with, i.e. growing old. It’s a bittersweet rumination on how we treat “old people”–the ones who have so much knowledge and who have contributed so much and are now relegated to facing some literally life-and-death situations all alone

Redemption, Directed by Jon Alpert

Redemption takes a look at “canners”–people who collect bottles and cans on New York’s streets and then redeem them for 5 cents an item and the appropriately titled “Redemption Center.” It’s a crushing, no-holds-barred look into the face of poverty and the creation of a new underclass that only modern conditions and “development” can bring about. The canners come from all walks of life–some are homeless, some are retirees who do not have enough money to live on, some are immigrant families…They walk the streets all day and night, rummaging through trash, in the hope of making twenty dollars a day. When one of them passes by a sidewalk cafe, she wistfully ruminates, “I wonder what it would feel like to sit down and eat in a restaurant. It must be really nice.” Therein is the genius behind Redemption–in showing the nauseatingly wasteful consumerist culture that creates the crumbs [cans] that feed a subclass that will never have access to that sort of opulence and is relegated to scavenging on its discarded leftovers. One man’s trash is another man’s barely subsistence.

Mondays At Racine, Directed by Cynthia Wade

Once a month on Mondays, owners Cynthia and Rachel open their Long Island beauty salon to cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Lest you think this sounds like a sadder riff on Extreme Makeover, this is not a movie about shaving one’s head. Yes, there is the self-caring aspect to it, but ultimately, the women who come to Racine are there for the camaraderie, for a chance to support each other in the battle with a common enemy. The film is a heart-breaking look at the havoc that cancer wreaks on those who have it and on the families and loved ones left standing in its ravaging wake. In one sense, it explores how losing something as superficial as hair is intensely depersonalizing. “I didn’t want to shave my head as I would look in the mirror and just see cancer.” “Having no hair made me feel like an alien.” Cynthia and Rachel explain that they started this event so they can give women back a sense of themselves. That sense comes not just through getting one’s make-up done but through meeting others living through the same thing. One of the women in the film has had cancer for 18 years–through her story, we see the damage it does to a person and to a family.

Inocente, Directed by Sean Fine and Andrea Nix

MTV Films backs a film very different from its usually sensationalistic fare but one that would nevertheless resonate well with its teen-leaning audience. Inocente is the story of a 15-year-old homeless artist. Told through extended interviews with her, the movie feels like an intimate look inside the diary of an ebullient and resilient young girl who refuses to live in her circumstances and dares to dream her “silly dreams.” Inocente gives a new face to homelessness in America–as she puts it, “being homeless does not mean waking up on the street every day. It means having no home.” In the past 9 years, she has never lived in one place longer than three months. The film also explores what it means to be an undocumented immigrant and the truly alienating feeling of having no home in too many ways to name. Inocente’s Mom is constantly toiling at her job as a maid, yet is unable to provide enough for her family to have a roof over their heads so they sleep in shelters, under bridges, in friend’s homes. Inocente is about the impossibly vibrant, colorful art that belies her grim surroundings. Working with a non-profit organization, she is selected to put on her own art show, where she sells all of her paintings. The film is a celebration of the redemptive and transformative powers of art that allow one to break outside of personal and social boundaries.

Open Heart, Directed by Kief Davidson

Open Heart is the story of eight Rwandan children who travel to Sudan to receive life-saving heart operations. They all suffer from severe rheumatic heart disease, resulting from complications caused by strep throat left untreated by antibiotics. The film is a pointed commentary on how the lack of some of the most basic health care, such as antibiotics, has such incredibly consequences for people in Africa. Open Heart also offers a glimpse into the dedicated work of people like Dr. Emmanuel, Rwanda’s lone government cardiologist, and Dr. Gino, the Salam Center’s head surgeon, and the huge impact their fervent advocacy has on the lives of so many. Dr. Gino, in trying to keep his center cost-free, has to wrestle with governments and private donors to continue being able to save lives. Open Heart is a look at the incredible feats that a few dedicated people and organizations can bring about.

And the winner is:

Although all of the films are incredibly strong contenders and I would have a hard time picking between it and Redemption, Kings Point stands out in the quiet way it presents a reality that should be so ubiquitous yet is often pushed out of our minds even though it’s one we may well have to contend with. Its honest portrayal of loneliness and how we relate to each other in today’s self-focused world is incredibly thought-provoking. The protagonists are dealt lots that are not inordinately tragic or abnormal…we all grow old after all, but there are so few films out there that focus on a group that, like children, also deserves our care, attention, and protection.

Escape Fire Film Review

My review of Escape Fire

Escape Fire: The Fight To Rescue American Healthcare, a documentary by Matthew Heineman and Susan Frömke, sets out to not only expose what ails the American healthcare system but also provide what the film posits to be creative solutions. Unfortunately, due to the byzantine nature of the subject matter, Escape Fire develops a strong case of The Corporation-itis: attempting to cover too much ground and sacrificing a strong cohesive story arc in the process.
The film’s title is a riff on the concept of an escape fire, which are lit to clear an area of grass in the face of an approaching wildfire. It creates a safe space with nothing left to burn in it; in other words, an inventive solution to a thorny problem or as the film’s website states, “an improvised, effective solution to a crisis that cannot be solved using traditional approaches.” This begs the question, however, about how “untraditional” the film’s solutions are: prevention rather than disease management, a lifestyle overhaul, and a move away from reliance on medications are ideas quite prevalent in the health-talk zeitgeist and, thus, not particularly innovative. Still, the breadth of topics covered by Escape Fire is impressively thorough: physicians’ fees, inaccessibility of health insurance, prevention vs. mere disease management, over-reliance on drugs, insurance companies’ focus on profit margins at the expense of patient care, patients’ insistence on expensive testing, maximum care, quick fixes, the rise of diabetes as a result of unhealthy eating habits, and the political stranglehold of the health care industry’s lobby.

Despite its penchant for positing truisms and rehashing topics better covered elsewhere, Escape Fire does bring up some great points. For example, the fact that other developed countries spend $3000 per capita on health care per person while the US spends $8000, yet is ranked fiftieth world-wide in life expectancy indicates the disparity between expenditures and actual health outcomes. The film argues that the fee-for-service system currently in place rewards physicians for doing more, expensive-test-wise; on the flip side, primary care in America is in great danger as primary care physicians are barely able to earn a living while specialists earn significantly more. This essentially endangering the livelihood of the people most needed to do preventative care. The film also takes a hard look at the pharmaceutical industry (the US spends 300 billion on drugs annually) and examines the issue from both sides—the almost limitless political power wielded by Big Pharma and the patients’ own penchant for panaceas and quick-fix pill solutions. The section on lifestyle changes and nutrition awareness is no uncovered ground and probably far better covered in other documentaries, but experts are clearly on to something with the fact that nutrition education is currently omitted from medical education. As a result, physicians are unable to advise their patients on such topics.
While interviews with well-recognized experts such as medical journalist Shannon Brownlee and others paint a sobering portrait of a system in dire crisis, it is the personal stories of people caught in it that pack the more poignant punch. The story of Sgt. Robert Yates, returning from combat in Afghanistan with physical injuries and PTSD so severe that he literally clutches a plastic bag full of dozens of medicines next to his chest, is the most visceral commentary on the depth of the problem. His path to recovery through meditation, acupuncture, and yoga speaks volumes about an often unreported story: the Army’s deployment of therapies that more conventional care givers are still reluctant to use. The story of Dr. Martin, a physician increasingly under pressure by Medicare to spend less and less time with her patients (the standard she is told to uphold is seven minutes per patient) illustrates the film’s theme that our “health” system is really a “disease management” system.
Escape Fire may not offer much in the way of outside-the-box solutions and it may be a bit scattered in its approach, but it is startling portrait of a very diseased system.

Into The Abyss Film Review

German documentary film-maker Werner Herzog [Grizzly Man and his most recent documentary on cave art in France, The Cave Of Forgotten Dreams] takes on a macabre American Gothic-esque tale of death and life. It is equal parts Capote’s In Cold Blood and an expose on the no-less-grisly underside of capital punishment. A particularly timely movie in light of the recent Troy Davis execution in Georgia, Into The Abyss turns the lens on a triple homicide case in Conroe, Texas. Teenagers at the time of the crime, the movie centers on Michael Perry and Jason Burkett ten years later—Burkett is sentenced to life in prison and Michael Perry is facing execution.

While documentaries are inherently “biased” in that they present a position, Herzog’s approach is fresh and interesting. The focus is not on the issue of guilt or innocence—as such, it is not a who-done-it crime procedural. There is no confusion on Herzog’s personal opposition to the death penalty, but as an interviewer, he has an uncanny way of educing visceral, evocative, and unexpectedly eloquent responses from his subjects. For example, when he asks how “something feels,” rather than drawing bafflement, he elicits trenchant answers such as when he asks Jason Burkett’s wife to describe what his hand feels like over hers or how it felt for Jason’s father to be chained next to his son or when he asks the prison chaplain to “please describe an encounter with a squirrel.” His interviewing style, at worst is a bit unsettling, but for the most part, is surprisingly disarming. Into The Abyss makes copious use of police video of the crime scene, as well as footage of what the execution room looks like, grimly named “The Death House.” The interviews with the surrounding characters are what really offer some truly unique perspectives and pack an emotional punch. The segment with Jason Burkett’s father, who himself is serving a prison sentence, is especially poignant. His plea to the court at the sentencing to “please do not kill my son” is a stark and haiku-like encapsulation of just what capital punishment means at its most uncomplicated—taking away a human life.The segment with Fred Allen, a captain in the Death House unit, who after unstrapping his 125th prisoner from the gurney could not bring himself to do it one more time is especially powerful in its insider perspective on the “process.” His conviction that “no one has a right to take a human life,” is cogent in the context of seeing the damage his work did to him and his transformation from a man simply committed to “carrying out the law in a professional manner” to one who could not physically or emotionally continue to do it.

Into The Abyss also does an excellent job of portraying the milieu of violence that haunts the small Texas town, appropriately entitled the “dark side of Conroe.” As such, it also reminds the audience that capital punishment is meted out to people of different backgrounds. It’s a bleak reality—generations of families in prison, rampant violence, struggling working class, gated communities…Jason Burkett’s father, serving a sentence himself, blames himself, explaining how his son never had a chance. When he describes the moment when they were handcuffed together in the same prison bus, he heartbreakingly narrates that he felt like a “total failure as a father, being there with my baby son. Doesn’t get any lower than that.”
The film’s pacing seems reflective of the complexity of the thorny issue of crime and punishment, yet steers clear of dogmatic asides, opting to simply present things as they are. The daughter of the one of the victims describes that she was shocked to see that Michael Perry was “just a boy” and not the monster she had imagined him to be, yet she feels like a weight is lifted off her shoulders when he is executed—her words are a small example of just how slippery the idea of retribution and, even more so, justice is.

Into The Abyss does a tremendous job of humanizing such a broad, firebrand issue as the death penalty. It manages to steer clear of normative polemics or moralizing, instead opting for a subtle view into what it actually feels to take away a life.