There’s an elephant in the room when it comes to ‘My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?’. It’s a big elephant with floppy ears and a trunk like a fire hose and somebody’s painted on the side of it, in garish pink letters, “this is, y’know, that Werner Herzog film produced by David Lynch that looks more like a David Lynch film than a Werner Herzog film”. If someone would be so kind as to take the elephant outside and pass me my elephant gun, maybe we can have an intelligent conversation.
Oh, don’t worry about the elephant by the way. The blunderbuss is for use on the next jackass who sits up excitedly during the scene where a dwarf in a tux wanders onscreen, and points and says “Look, it’s a dwarf! That’s a David Lynch moment!” I have five words for said jackass: Auch Zwerge haben klein angefangen.
Granted, ‘My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?’ – hereinafter, ‘My Son…’, since even the acronym treatment (‘MSMSWHYD’) is liable to give me RSI – starts out in startlingly non-Herzogian fashion with Detectives Havenhurst (Williem Dafoe) and Vargas (Michael Pena) shooting the shit in their cruiser as they head over to a murder scene. The deceased is a Mrs Macallam (Grace Zabriskie); the perp is her son, Brad (Michael Shannon). Brad has holed himself up across the road from the murder scene with a couple of hostages. A large chunk of the movie consists of Havenhurst and Vargas trying to open up a dialogue with Brad before the SWAT team open up a different kind of dialogue that involves hot lead.
In between attempts to appeal to Brad, Havenhurst and Vargas interview his girlfriend Ingrid (a winningly sympathetic Chloe Sevigny) and his erstwhile mentor, theatre director Lee Myers (Udo Kier). Brad’s increasingly fragile mental state is thus revealed in a series of flashbacks – some of which say more about the witnesses than about Brad – which document the months leading up to the murder. The first signs that he’d bummed a ride out of Normal, we learn, were after he returned from Peru. No sooner is this bit of dialogue out than we’re in Herzog territory good and proper, and to all the naysayers I offer this screengrab:
Of course, we were in Herzog territory all the time. The desperately self-delusive Brad is a man-child redolent of Bruno S. in ‘The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser’ and ‘Stroszek’. Herzog’s bleak vision of Americana in that latter film may have been upgraded from Wisconsin to San Diego in ‘My Son …’, but the same sense of dislocation, of alien-ness, remains. The dancing chicken at the end of ‘Stroszek’ finds is corollary in the flamingos that turn out to be Brad’s hostages.
The genius of Michael Shannon’s performance is the glimpse he gives us of the stunningly out-of-kilter way Brad’s mind works. You can easily imagine Brad sitting cross-legged in front of the TV for a Herzog marathon, favouring the crazed, messianic performances of Klaus Kinski in ‘Aguirre, Wrath of God’ and ‘Fitzcarraldo’ and fancying himself as America’s equivalent thespian talent. He’s an actor, is our Brad. Or at least he thinks he is. What we see of his rehearsals for Myers’s howlingly pretentious production of the Orestes tragedy is enough to convince otherwise.
Herzog throws out satirical barbs left, right and centre. ‘My Son …’ is poisoned love letter to a nation’s obsession with fame; a skit on actorly eccentricities (you can almost feel the ghost of Kinski hovering just offscreen); the most deadpan send up of cop movie conventions you’ll ever see; and an exercising in bouncing bizarro ensemble combinations off each and seeing what happens. Case in point? This scene …
… where Brad, already way up Bonkers Creek and demonstrably deficient in the paddle department, goes to borrow a sword from his jaw-droppingly racist and homophobic white trash ostrich-farmer uncle (Brad Dourif) while Myers camps in up in the background. Or the dinner table conversation which redefines awkward, where we have Shannon, Zabriski and Sevigny playing the scene as if it were written by Strindberg and directed by Mike Leigh and the two of them were at fisticuffs over how it should be played while their cast tried to do the take under a veil of abject embarrassment.
Did I mention that ‘My Son …’ is a weird little film?
Perhaps its weirdest element is its visual aesthetic. While images proliferate that could only have been conjured by Herzog, it looks uglier, muddier and less ecstatically poetic than is to be expected from a Herzog film. It was filmed using lightweight digital cameras, and while a whole generation of directors might have embraced the RED ONE, it pissed Herzog off no end. “An immature camera,” he declared, “created by computer people who do not have a sensibility or understanding for the value of high-precision mechanics which has a 200-year history.”
Fortunately, the film was created by a man whose understanding and values are at the other end of the spectrum. Oh, and it was produced David Lynch.