My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done
Director: Werner Herzog
Werner Herzog and David Lynch: both of them movie mavericks in their sixties, fascinated with the extremes of human behaviour and psychology, both of them resident in Los Angeles for decades -Herzog, who turned 68 on Sunday, actually lives very close to the Lynch-immortalised road Mulholland Drive. It’s perhaps surprising that they’ve never before collaborated on a project, but My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done
(after that deliciously off-the-wall Bad Lieutenant
remake, the second Herzog feature to obtain UK release in less than four months) suggests that they should certainly do so more often.
A suitably bizarre journey into the warped mind of a murderer, it’s pretty loosely based (“about 70% of the film is false” says Herzog) on the real-life case of Mark Yavorsky, a San Diego University postgraduate and amateur actor who killed his mother in 1979 in apparent emulation of the matricide from Aeschylus’s classical tragedy The Eumenides
– part of the Oresteia
trilogy – a play in which he’d been cast as part of a student production. Updated to the present day, the Yavorsky figure is renamed Brad McCullum and provides the outstanding character-actor Michael Shannon (so commandingly unhinged in his recent Oscar-nominated turn from Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road
) with a particularly juicy leading role.
Crucially, Shannon plays McCullum pretty much dead-straight – even when the script, by Herzog and Boston University classics Professor Herbert Golder, has him intoning such menacingly absurd lines as “Razzle ‘em, dazzle ‘em… razzle-dazzle ‘em” to a passing policeman. Herzog surrounds Shannon with a unique roster of vivid supporting players – indeed, as one excitable internet commentator remarked when the casting was revealed, “Herzog, Lynch, Brad Dourif, Shannon and Willem Dafoe all working on the same film will reach a critical mass of weirdness that will open a rift in the time-space continuum.” And that’s without mentioning Chloe Sevigny (as Brad’s long-suffering girlfriend) or Udo Kier – and even the latter, a battle-hardened veteran of such bizarreries, looks somewhat bemused from time to time by the shenanigans than unfold.
My Son, My Son
isn’t exactly plot-heavy – Brad’s suburban house is surrounded by cops following the murder of his mother (Lynch regular Grace Zabriskie), the authorities keeping their distance when they discover that he’s apparently holding a couple of hostages inside. The chief investigating officer (Dafoe) tries to piece together what led to Brad’s homicidal outburst – as the film’s poster says, this isn’t a “whodunnit”, but a “whydunnit.” The answers involve a racist ostrich-breeder (Dourif) and Brad’s life-changing trip to South America – allowing Herzog to revisit his beloved Urubamba River in Peru, location for his classics Aguirre – the Wrath of God
(1972) and Fitzcarraldo
(1982), both of them starring the inimitable Klaus Kinski.
It’s unlikely that Herzog will ever find a partner-in-crime as diabolically suitable as the late, much-missed Kinski, but he’s come pretty close in the last year with first Cage from Bad Lieutenant and Shannon here (indeed, one can only dream of a future sequel that might somehow bring the two characters together) – the performance from the latter, six-foot-odd of sustained, glowering intensity, is quite literally a tour de force.
And while the likes of Aguirre
achieved an exotic, elemental majesty, it’s a testament to Herzog’s protean gifts that he’s able to achieve similar effects in a drably affluent San Diego cul-de-sac, or in the confines of an am-dram theatre – the latter the location for an astonishing flashback in which audience-member Brad suddenly and loudly starts “participating” in the on-stage action.
Such unnerving moments do have a “Lynchian” nightmarishness about them, but anyone expecting a full-blown collaboration – the movie was initially announced as a co-direction enterprise – between Herzog and Lynch is likely to be disappointed: the latter is credited only as a producer, and seems to have taken a fairly hands-off role. His presence is chiefly evident from familiar Lynch-world faces as Dafoe, Zabriskie (according to whom Herzog isn’t “under anyone’s control, not even his own”) and, very briefly, dwarf actor Michael Anderson.
Indeed, much more crucial to proceedings – but much less prominently credited on the poster, for obvious reasons – is co-screenwriter Golder, whose academic lectures have included ‘The Orestes Murders’ (1995 American Philological Association) and who is reportedly working on a book entitled The Mythic Power of Film
. A long-time devotee of martial arts, the ebulliently expansive academic Golder is clearly a quintessentially Herzogian figure. Here he channels the most ancient of texts (Aeschylus’s original was written back in 458 BC) into the most modern of idioms and formats: the true-crime melodrama, one whose TV-movie like rough-edges only add to its charms as a sui generis product that’s neither arthouse nor multiplex, but which exists on its own plane of irrational inspiration.
The result is a truly off-kilter vision of insanity, marbled with absurdist comedy that is radical both formally and content-wise, and which challenges us to accept its audacious mixture of moods and modes. It doesn’t all come off by any means, but the combination of sublimely mysterious transcendence and cockeyed whimsy makes this a true one-off – and, for this writer at least, one of 2010′s most unmissable new releases.