As a believer in auteur theory and a red-blooded Werner Herzog fan, I had to see My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done, despite some serious reservations, starting with the title. It’s so awkward that I have never actually said it out loud in its entirety (at Northwest Film Forum I just asked for “the Herzog movie” and scuttled away from the counter).
It seems that Herzog and the film’s producer, David Lynch, spent their time inserting self-referential scenes that are recognizably Herzogian and Lynchian, without adding any of the narrative and cinematographic propulsion of their best individual works.
Brad McCullum (Michael Shannon) is the matricidal protagonist who hasn’t been the same “ever since he came back from Peru.” To emphasize the point, Herzog provides shots of Urubamba River so we can wistfully remember Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo. McCullum does not participate in his friends’ deadly rafting expedition (though that trip might have made for a more interesting film) and returns to San Diego to method-act Aeschylus’ Oresteia.
To ensure that Lynch fans won’t feel left out, there are the scarily unlined faces and stagey voices of Udo Kier and Grace Zabriskie (hamming it up as Brad’s acting teacher and mother). There’s a somewhat unmotivated scene at a hotel that features a self-playing piano and people walking around in oxygen masks. And then there’s a completely unmotivated scene on a snowy tableau from which Verne Troyer looks down on us from godly heights. Really.
But back to the story, as much as there is one. For the bulk of the film, Brad is barricaded in his house, having taken avian hostages after running his mother through with a saber. As a former resident, I can tell you that no one in San Diego is as earnest as the lead detective on the scene, Havenhurst (Willem Dafoe, embarking now on his fourth decade of bad acting, whose distractingly stilted performance is still much better than the one he submits in Antichrist, a film where Lars Von Trier somehow strays even farther into the weeds than Herzog does here). Havenhurst interviews Brad’s girlfriend, played by Chloë Sevigny (whose career seems to have recovered from her active participation in Vincent Gallo’s Brown Bunny, even if I haven’t) and, despite much brow furrowing, there is zero urgency in their scenes. Not that we get an engaging reimagination of the police procedural like, say, Twin Peaks or Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans — the sequences are just boring.
"Although he’s an outsider, Herzog gives a spot on depiction of San Diego as a network of freeways and subdivisions lined with eucalyptus trees and the occasional flamingo."
One of the reasons that My Son fails to gain any momentum is the flat, staring cinematography. Of the Red One digital camera he used for the film, Herzog is quoted as saying, “It's an immature camera created by computer people who do not have a sensibility or understanding for the value of high-precision mechanics.” Which begs the question: why did you use it, Werner?
I don’t think Herzog could make anything irredeemable, however . Michael Shannon is his usual magnetic self in the film — Brad makes strangely beautiful prescription eyeglass candelabras and is completely believable when he claims that God lives in an oatmeal container. The Deadwood-esque verbal fireworks from ostrich-farming Uncle Ed (Brad Dourif) are anatomically exact and hilarious. And, although he’s an outsider, Herzog gives a spot on depiction of San Diego as a network of freeways and subdivisions lined with eucalyptus trees and the occasional flamingo. It’s just that the good bits are non sequiturs to the disappointing whole. Like the cops leaning on the hoods of their patrol cars at Brad’s house, we wait patiently for the real action to begin.
It never does.
My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done (Werner Herzog, USA, 2009, 35mm, 91 min). Playing at NWFF through April 15.