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When Werner Met David: 'My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?'

Undeniably quirky, but also very effective from a straight dramatic standpoint, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? argues for Herzog's continued viability as one of the great filmmakers of the post-modern age.


My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?

Director: Werner Herzog
Cast: Michael Shannon, Willem Dafoe, Chloë Sevigny, Udo Kier, Grace Zabriskie, Brad Dourif
Rated: R
Studio: First Look Pictures
Year: 2009
US date: 2010-09-14

For most of his career, director Werner Herzog has been struggling with the narrative themes of man vs. nature vs. man vs. his own nature. In brilliant films like Aquirre: The Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo, and documentaries like Little Dieter Needs to Fly and Grizzly Man, the German auteur has positioned the practical human condition against the hurdles - natural, social, or psychological - that would stand in their way. Even his recent deconstruction of the police procedural, the brilliant Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, offered a contextual discourse on individual evil up against perceived public good, all set within a post-Katrina landscape beset by the unleashed elements of a hurricane devastated terrain.

His latest collaboration with producer/genius David Lynch, a self-described attempt to get back to "essential filmmaking" reflects this life long battle between the various forces of that effect our lives. Given the unusual title My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? and based upon the true story of a young man inspired by Aeschylus's Oresteia to brutally kill his own mother, it's yet another example of the visionary maverick's undying need to expand his own artistic and professional horizons. Collecting a group of actors he longed to work with and aided in the script writing by Greek mythology expert Herbert Golder, the result is another delightful genre reinvention, Dog Day Afternoon where the standoff isn't just between police and protagonist, but is instead intertwined with our killer and his kindly, understanding friends.

After a trip to Peru where he saw several of his buddies drown in a white water kayaking accident, Brad McCullum (Michael Shannon) was forever changed. He became disconnected and obsessed with God, claiming he could see the deity in the face on a box of oatmeal. While his domineering mother (Grace Zabriskie) tolerated his latest mood swings, fiancé Ingrid (Chloë Sevigny) fears for his sanity. Things come to a head when Brad is cast in an Oresteia inspired work helmed by associate Lee Meyers (Udo Kier). Playing a character who kills his cruel and uncaring mother, it pushes the already unstable young man toward demented, deadly thoughts. With an antique sword he borrowed from his bigoted Uncle Ted (Brad Dourif), he murders his mother and then holes up in his house. It is up to police detectives Havenhurst (Willem Dafoe) and Vargas (Michael Pena) to defuse the situation before it turns even deadlier.

Undeniably quirky, but also very effective from a straight dramatic standpoint, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? argues for Herzog's continued viability as one of the great filmmakers of the post-modern age. With an eye that can't help but produce masterworks and an aesthetic which neatly balances the weird with the clear and concrete, he forges a path toward enlightenment while tossing as many unusual beats at the audience as possible. From the opening scene where Shannon teases and taunts a pair of live pet flamingoes (which not only symbolize tacky white trash kitsch but beauty, grace, and balance) to the out of sync references to basketball, oatmeal, and gospel music, Herzog has his pick of peculiarities. There's even a familial tableau held still in camera, the actors doing their best to stay silent and motionless. Yet the director always counterattacks their initial oddness with an insight or explanation that furthers our understanding of the subtext involved in the story.

For Brad, whose never had a father or freedom from his mother's considerable grasp, the South American incident brings thoughts of machismo and mortality to the surface. We see him taunted by his hedonistic pals, a reactive response representing every unspoken accusation the group is making toward him. Even when he has Ingrid in his bedroom, the lovely gal prepping the sheets for a night of...whatever, mother wanders in with a plate of brownies and a coolly critical demeanor which works better than any contraceptive in the prevention of premarital sex. As embodied by Shannon, an actor well known for bringing even the most troubled temperament to stunning life, Brad is a boy longing to be something - perhaps not a man, but at least not the son of someone who can't separate the ordinary with the obsessive (mother's decorating style suggests a hidden unhinged homemaker).

Everyone else is an enabler, from the girl who goes along with Brad's trips into psychosis to Meyers, who tolerates his death antics because "he's so good" in the starring role. About the only character here who doesn't put up with Brad's Beatle wig pout is Uncle Ted, though his gay bashing belittling of his nephew suggests someone whose long given up on anything other than the oversized birds on his ostrich farm. Even the policeman walk the 'by the book' walk, avoiding heroics to shuttle coffee and overanalyze everything. There are moments in the stand-off when the audience knows more than the officials in charge, the claim of hostages mocking what we know about Brad and his/his mother's "tropical" tendencies.

As he does with most of his projects, Herzog finds actors who can support his skewed approaches. Since this is a very talky film, filled with flashbacks and gaps in the otherwise mundane 'action', he needs performers who can parse the dramatic out of the seemingly dull. Luckily, everyone here is up to the challenge, from a bristling Dafoe to a slyly flamboyant Kier. Herzog, like Hitchcock, recognizes the value in proper casting and every role in My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? is essayed with perfected panache. Lynch's influence is evident around the edges, in the unusual set designs and simmering sinister suburban locale. There's even a sequence where Dourif discusses a proposed TV commercial involving a little person - and sure enough, a midget straight out of Mr. Eraserhead's psyche shows up.

All throughout the recent DVD release of the film, however, Herzog makes it very clear that his collaboration with Lynch was more ephemeral than practical. In interviews and commentary, it's clear that both of these moviemaking maestros want to return to a time when film was an organic medium, not something preprogrammed and pre-marketed by a super studio looking down the line to all means of maximizing profits while marginalizing art. If My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? is any indication of where such a cinematic strategy can go, the duo has the right idea. Cinephiles and film fanatics anticipating the ultimate merging of the strange with the surreal need to look elsewhere. While My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? does offer up some decided digital dementia, its status as the possible start of something significant in independent filmmaking is far more interesting...and entertaining.

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