The usual Herzog trope of madness and obsession played against a pitiless backdrop is present, if on a smaller scale, in My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done; the police are hapless, the family clueless, characters like Uncle Ted (Brad Dourif) indifferent or self-absorbed. The obsession here is prophetic. Brad, played by the extremely talented and woefully misused Michael Shannon, kills his mother with a sword and proceeds to take a hostage. Everyone he knows, and the police, are left to pick up the pieces. Details emerge: Brad was acting the part of Orestes in a stage production of the Greek tragedy Electra, incidentally playing a character who kills his mother and subsequently goes mad, acquired a sword to wield for his performance, swooped down to Peru some months prior for a rafting expedition, then got fired from the production. This is all parsed through flashbacks drawn from the accounts of others, and what lies in between (Brad’s perspective) is asserted by Herzog. There will never be anything resembling a consensus of opinion regarding this recent film in the idiosyncratic director’s canon, and, as may be ascertained below, that may be its single (greatest) virtue.
Werner Herzog would like us to believe that, despite being produced by David Lynch, and referenced often as a “collaboration” between the two, this film is 100% Herzog; that a few of Lynch’s films are alluded to but many more of his own films find homage; that My Son My Son is, in a way, a surveying of his filmography up to this point. My initial reaction to the film when the credits began to roll over the San Diego skyline at dusk—a basketball having just been removed from the clutches of a sapling by a young boy—was one of delight. I thought too excitedly that someone had finally made a picture with all the pretense of dramatic storytelling, like a check-list of Hollywood requirements for drama, in the least demonstrative way possible, so much so that I could snidely tell friends that the film indeed has a story, characters and things that set them in motion while having not the least interest in those three things. I thought Werner had finally pulled the wool over our eyes, giving us something with potential dramatic weight that decidedly is lighter than air. I’m not the only viewer who thought this was a comedy all the way through. Or, to be more precise, a gigantic prank.
But hearing Werner, even briefly, talk about his film has thrown me for a loop. He totally believes in the stilted performances of his actors, comparing their approach to ancient Greek drama. He sincerely believes in the beauty of his film, its grace, and Michael Shannon’s approximation of insanity. I honestly don’t know if Werner is deluding himself or deluding his audience. So the prank theory is out. Werner made this film in earnest. Perhaps Herzog’s passion for the material and his instincts told him to tell the story in this way, in a way that makes it seem like a joke is being played on us. The film is not simply weird as most of the director’s output is, but artificial. Artificial in a way I can only compare to David Lynch, which is strange because even Werner himself has deflected accusations that Lynch had very much to do with the finished product, which I don’t doubt. So somehow Werner has subconsciously borrowed many of Lynch’s traits in a film that happens to be produced by Lynch. Strange. Some Lynchian voodoo at work. Maybe that was David Lynch wearing a Herzog skin-suit at the Q & A I saw.
This is most certainly a Werner Herzog film insofar as it’s isolated to its primary themes and evocations, but the dialogue and the delivery of it is a page out of Mullholland Drive or Blue Velvet, and the shot length is something akin to the opening scene of Twin Peaks’ second season where Agent Cooper is lying in his hotel room with a bullet in his stomach with an utterly ancient hotel employee looking on as if nothing is the matter. It’s nothing at all like Herzog’s previous films where the absurd is encountered and taken at face-value and where the characters’ eccentricities are often empathized with by the filmmaker. Virtually every character here is exceedingly kind, including Brad. He even gives his mother’s elderly neighbor an opportunity to stop him before he commits the film’s singular act of violence, an act which is not shown, not dwelled upon and seemingly has little effect on the world except as a vehicle to bring Brad face to face with the police, and us. Detective Hank Havenhurst (Willem Dafoe), called in to deflate the situation, absolutely loves coffee. Does that remind anyone else of an eccentric character with a badge and slicked hairdo from a popular TV series in the early ’90s?
The relationship between Brad and his fiancée Ingrid (Chloë Sevigny) is played with obvious dissonance, to the extent that someone must have told Shannon to act as if he’s never met this girl who so clearly believes they’re going steady and have been for some time. A flashback scene with Ingrid, Brad and his mother (Lynch regular Grace Zabriskie) having dinner (jello) appears to be another test for the audience. It has all the meta-awkwardness of the dinner scene in Eraserhead minus the surreal touches of twitching, bleeding chickens and the girlfriend’s apparent seizure. It ends with a shot trained on the three which appears to be a tongue-in-cheek extended freeze frame, the kind you see in the credits of the old Police Squad TV series. I found it funny, but now I don’t know what to think of touches like that. Brad is just as disconnected elsewhere in the film, such as the flashback of his trip to Peru where he refuses to kayak with his friends who end up drowning on the expedition; later asked about the refusal, he says God told him to stay behind.
This is one of two Herzog films released in 2009 (two days apart, in fact) and by far the less appreciated. The Bad Lieutenant update may be the stronger of the two and its fame certainly derives in part from its subject matter and cast—Nick Cage and Eva Mendes have a little more star power than Willem Dafoe and Michael Shannon—but it’s also simply more well-liked and it’s not hard to see why. Bad Lieutenant doesn’t antagonize its audience, but invites us to share in what’s essentially one big, seedy joke. Cage is a prehensile enigma for much of its running time, but there’s never any indication that he’s one that needs solving. Werner doesn’t ask us to probe, only to rejoice in the absurd splendor of his creation. There are moments when My Son, My Son almost fools us into accepting the same invitation, but we cannot. Its humor is viewer-supplied and unfortunately not contingent upon anything in the script, unless you count the incessant gazes of characters into the camera.
Are we experiencing the Orestian odyssey that’s playing out in Brad’s head, or perhaps his schizophrenia? One is forced to make conjectures like that in order to make sense of the film. After one viewing, I don’t buy the descent into madness of a character when everyone else is equally mad; that just seems terribly counter-intuitive, even for Herzog. Maybe I’m wrong. If so, there’s plenty of reason to see it again. If nothing else, it serves as a stimulus for discussion of the artist’s role in his creation and of the line that separates tragedy and mordant superfluity. I’d like to think of it as an unintentional satire. Then I wonder if intentions even matter. Then I remember vividly some of the scenes here and their inhabitants, like Uncle Ted, proprietor of an ostrich farm and purveyor of hilarious homophobic slurs; then there’s Udo Kier as the impresario, the ostrich that purloins his sunglasses, the mounting absurdity of Brad’s ransom demands, his coffee mug, the gift shop pillows that he gives away in the park, the Central Asian market, the dwarf on the redwood stump, that basketball in the tree…