November 27, 2010
My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? (2009) ***1/2
Directed by Werner Herzog
My Son My Son What Have Ye Done? (2009)- Parodies of Herzog cliches aside, this is a fascinating meditation on paranoia. ***1/2 of 5
I wasn't a huge fan of Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, not because I thought it was too weird, but because I thought its formulaic identity stifled Herzog's vision. The result ended up being watered down Herzog/floured up psychological crime drama. One of my favorite films of the past few years, Rescue Dawn, was Herzog working within the formula of the prisoner of war film while staying true to his flavor. That film was taut and focused; Bad Lieutenant was flimsy and sloppy. My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, which was produced by David Lynch, is Herzog at his most allegorical. He's not working within any formula or framework at all, except maybe within the milieu of his own long offbeat career. The story itself is ultimately a MacGuffin since this movie is an exploration into the logical progression of paranoia flourishing within a meaningless world.
Michael Shannon plays Brad McCullum who just killed his mother with a sword at his neighbor's house and is now taking hostages inside of the house he shares with his mother and his fiancee Ingrid, played by Chloe Sevingy. It's through conversations between a police officer played by Willem DeFoe, Ingrid and play director Lee Meyers, played by Udo Kier, that we learn of the trigger that began Brad's downward spiral which causes his ultimately unraveling. We're taken on an odd journey of attempted fulfillment led by an inner voice, which saved his life during a kayaking trip to Peru. It's this voice that Brad believes to be God, and God tells him to navigate life in increasingly illogical ways.
Clearly, Herzog sympathizes with Brad's psychoses, and there's a sense that Herzog sees himself going down a similar path if he were ever to lose his own sense of self and self-control. That being said, there are a handful of moments where the actors freeze or stare directly at the camera or experience the world in slow motion that come off like someone parodying Herzog's work. Yet, the film's not comedic or self-referential enough to sell these moments, so instead they come off pedantic, pretentious and, worst of all, expected. Herzog simply lets his own meditations go too far, and as a result, at times he disengages his audience from an otherwise fascinating and engrossing journey into madness.
We're invested in how this standoff with police will ultimately turn out, and through it all, we're treated with wonderful performances by DeFoe, Sevigny, Kier and especially Shannon, who has no problem carrying a film this unconventional on his shoulders. Some of the supporting performances, including Grace Zabriskie as Brad's mother and Brad Dourif as his ostrich-raising Uncle Ted, go a bit too far into absurdity, as if the actors read to the end of the script and decided to play their roles with a knowing nod to Herzog's conviction. Sevigny, Kier and Shannon on the other hand play it straight, never once winking towards the camera (besides the moments mentioned earlier), and it's their performances which make the film interesting and complicated. This isn't really a performance piece; if so, it would be unbearably trite. Too bad Zabriskie, Dourif and even Herzog himself navigate too closely within that interpretation of the material.
The successes outweigh the failures, and what's left is an arresting and compellingly bizarre exploration into one man's lost battle within a fundamentally brutish world.