First Look Pictures // 2009 // 91 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // September 10th, 2010
The mystery isn't who, but why.
"Some people act a role, others play a part."
Brad McCullum (Michael Shannon, The Runaways) has just murdered his mother (Grace Zabriskie, Inland Empire). He stabbed her to death with an old sword he had been using as a prop in a play. Now he's locked inside his house, claiming to have several hostages with him. As Brad rants and raves madly from inside, two police detectives (Willem Dafoe, Spider-Man and Michael Pena, Observe and Report) spend their time attempting to figure out what led Brad to commit such a horrific crime. To do this, they interview Brad's fiancée (Chloe Sevigny, Big Love) and the director of the play (Udo Kier, Shadow of the Vampire). Carefully exploring important events in Brad's life, the detectives uncover clues as to what may have driven him to murder.
My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done is a collaboration between Werner Herzog and David Lynch. Take a moment to wrap your brain around that idea. Odds are you're either very intrigued right now or running away in terror at the thought. While Herzog is the director and Lynch is only credited as an executive producer, it's noted that Lynch played a pretty huge role in getting the film made, and the film feels as tonally in line with his own filmography as with Herzog's. While the movie does indeed deliver what it promises in meshing the sensibilities of the two auteurs, it unfortunately doesn't come close to the best works of either.
The film is loosely based on a true story -- there really was a man who murdered his mother after starring in a play as a character who murdered his mother, but most of the remaining details spring from the minds of the filmmakers. Lynch has had an increasing disdain for traditional plots as his career has progressed, while Herzog has a tendency of moving away from the plots of his films in favor of exploring corners of his cinematic worlds that intrigue him (consider the contemplative examinations of nature in Rescue Dawn or the iguanas in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans). The plot is shuffled into a non-linear jumble and Herzog does indeed wander away from the central storyline on a regular basis, but the story is perfectly coherent despite these quirks. The problem is that the central story just isn't all that good.
Co-writer Herbert Golder informs us that he was fascinated by the idea of exploring a matricide connected to art exploring matricide, but the film doesn't really take the time to actually explore that idea. Yes, we see that Brad is participating in a play in which he kills his mother, and we see that he kills his mother. But that's pretty much where the analysis stops. Other explanations feel similarly undercooked, such as Brad's oddball relationship with religion (over a short period of time, he becomes a Muslim, proclaims a figure on his oatmeal box to bear the face of God, falls in love with southern gospel music, and rejects God entirely) and his passive/aggressive relationship with his mother. The raw material is all there, but the threads to turn interesting ideas into well-executed concepts are missing.
There are some fine performances in the film. Michael Shannon impresses in the central role of Brad, if only because he plays the role with such mad conviction. Shannon has firmly typecast himself as cinema's current resident lunatic, and this part ranks as another notch on that belt. He flits between silent rage, ranting fury and silent self-absorption, constantly projecting something but never quite letting us in. Grace Zabriskie is creepily effective as his mother, bringing an ominously overbearing warmth to a part that feels very Lynchian indeed. Brad Dourif is excellent in a couple of scenes as a racist ostrich farmer; his offbeat rhythms seem to suit Herzog's filmmaking style as well as any actor this side of Klaus Kinski. Willem Dafoe smartly chooses to play his role completely straight, dutifully attempting to get to the bottom of the mystery.
However, some of the other actors struggle a bit in this odd cinematic landscape. Michael Pena and Udo Kier seem to recognize the sheer peculiarity of the film and their roles, and their tentative acting reflects this. Kier ought to be a more powerful force in the film that he is; he comes across as a slightly confused observer. However, the most problematic character is the fiancée played by Chloe Sevigny. She seems to be a smart, reasonable woman who's fully aware of all of Brad's problems. So why is she engaged to him? He's clearly mad from the beginning and he never behaves in any considerate way towards Sevigny, so why does she put up with it? The film never bothers to explain or even ask the question.
The standard-def transfer is actually kind of disappointing, offering a very soft image that's rather lacking in detail and depth. Black crush tends to be an issue and scenes that ought to be visually stunning come across as slightly flat. The audio is fine, with emphasis being placed on the typically eclectic and moody soundtrack. Dialogue can occasionally sound a bit muffled, but not in a way that damages the film. Supplements include an audio commentary with the reliably engaging Herzog (who is joined by Herbert Golder and producer Eric Bassett -- too bad Lynch wasn't available), a 27-minute interview with Herzog and Bassett and a short film by Ramin Bahrani entitled "Plastic Bag" (featuring narration by Herzog). Truthfully, that last item may very well be the single greatest thing on the entire disc, as it's a genuinely beautiful short that deserves comparison with some of Herzog's own great short films.
You know what? I actually liked this movie. Yes, I realize it has a lot of problems and that it's a far cry from the best works of Herzog and Lynch. However, there are so many marvelous self-contained moments that I couldn't help but feel glad I had watched the film. Every time Herzog veers away from the main plot to indulge his own obsessions (which happens quite often), the movie benefits tremendously. There's something quietly profound about the scenes in which participants will simply stop their dialogue and stare into the camera, or the moment where Herzog observes a stampede of ostriches running across barren land, or the inexplicable appearance of a little person in a tuxedo wandering into the background of a scene without warning. I've always loved Herzog's tendency to set absolutely everything aside when the inspiration hits him to capture something unexpected and intriguing, and that tendency is particularly helpful to a film like this. If you like Herzog as much as I do, you'll find the moments of transcendence make sitting through the less interesting bits worthwhile.
I can't really recommend My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done to anyone other than committed Herzog and Lynch fans, but I kinda dig it. Here's hoping that these two achieve something greater if they ever team up again.
The verdict has been eaten by an ostrich. If you want it, you're going to have to reach in there and get it.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Look Pictures
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Short Film