In Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life, the doggedly curious Werner Herzog offers a disturbing meditation on capital punishment. Herzog's against it, and says so right from the start, as he's interviewing a priest who attends to Texas' death row inmates as they're administered lethal injections.

But it's not as simple as that, and Herzog knows as much. With his camera, his compassion, and his keen reportorial skills (despite a few maddeningly leading questions), Herzog heads for the Lone Star state, retracing the events behind a triple homicide in Conroe, Texas, 10 years earlier.

The convicted killers were Michael Perry and Jason Burkett. Perry, who was 18 at the time of the murders, was sentenced to die. (Burkett received a life sentence.) Herzog's interview was recorded only eight days before Perry was strapped to a gurney and put to death in a room just a short walk from his cell. He tells Herzog that he's suffering from what he's been told is clinical depression. But he's resigned to his fate, he says. He believes in God.

As Herzog begins the conversation, the documentarian, in his sonorous German accent, notes, "When I talk to you, it does not necessarily mean that I have to like you. But I respect you, and you're a human being, and I think human beings should not be executed."

Of course, Perry was convicted of carrying out an execution - taking the lives of Sandra Stotler, her son Adam Stotler, and his friend Jeremy Richardson.

Herzog interviews the victims' family members; he revisits the crime scenes with one of the investigating officers; he shows us the forensics video - the blood splattered across the walls and soaked into rugs, the tray of cookies Stotler was getting ready to put in the oven.  

Into the Abyss is a true-crime drama, to be sure, but in Herzog's hands it becomes something much more: an inquiry into fundamental moral, philosophical, and religious issues, and an examination of humankind's capacity for violence - individual and institutional.EndText