By Damon Smith
My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done
Dir. Werner Herzog, U.S., Industrial Entertainment/Absurda
As willfully weird as his B-movie-grade update on Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant was grotesquely overwrought, Werner Herzog’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done spins a matricidal true-crime yarn into an absurdist fable whose tropes and themes, like the motivations of its killer protagonist, remain obscure. Such was the consensus, anyway, when the film debuted in competition at Venice and then screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it met with a lukewarm, appropriately puzzled response. Oddly enough, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, a far inferior film in every respect (even if its outlandishly narcissistic, no-holds-barred performance by Nicolas Cage outshines Michael Shannon’s labile San Diego weirdo by several solar degrees of crazed charisma), came through the festival gauntlet anointed with critical laurels. But Herzog’s latest, an esoterically funny Cali-freak-out crime procedural executive produced by David Lynch, will likely not fare as well, despite the nod from Venice honcho Marco Mueller—except, perhaps, in the hindsight of career-retrospective curation.
One can’t escape the feeling that over the course of these two films, Herzog is cocking a snook at the potboiler-thriller genre itself, crudely cross-pollinating Forties noir/mystery paradigms with contemporary auteurist flourish in a kind of kitschy postmodern pastiche. Or maybe he’s just having fun exploring new terrain for his low-budget bursts of ecstatic vision. In the case of My Son, My Son, a film pulsing with the perverse humor and perennial obsessions of its tenaciously ironic, edge-seeking director (madness and revelation, social marginalization, nature’s terrifying, fiercely impersonal grandeur), Herzog adds an unexpectedly potent strain of oneiric, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me eeriness, paying homage to the creative vision of his producing partner, perhaps, while also evoking the hallucinatory subjectivity of his warped protagonist. What makes My Son, My Son enthralling is the manner in which these very distinct sensibilities are grafted together. In Lynch’s ominous dream universe, identity is never stable or coherent; selfhood is multiple and permanently mystified. The unconscious is the aesthetic. In Herzog’s exotic, but far earthier world, nature is treacherous, unknowable, and sublime in the classic sense, but individuals, whether eccentric or insane, are radically autonomous, self-conscious, obsessive, determined, attuned to their own inner calling and solipsistic rationales. No one loves a wacko as much as Werner Herzog.
Written by Herbert Golder (Herzog’s assistant director on Invincible) and based on a real-life murder case, My Son, My Son opens with Detective Hank Havenhurst (Willem Dafoe) and his overeager rookie partner (Michael Peña) responding to a distress call. A woman has been felled by a sword in a suburban neighborhood, and the suspect, troubled part-time actor Brad McCullum (Michael Shannon), is now holed up in his flamingo-studded, SoCal ranch-style house with a couple of hostages, brandishing a shotgun and demanding pizza for his unidentified captives. When Brad’s bewildered fiancée, Ingrid (Chloë Sevigny), finally appears on the scene, she furnishes Havenhurst with details about Brad’s recent wig-outs and unpredictable behavior, which began shortly after he returned from a trip to Peru (glimpsed in flashback) and landed the role of Orestes in a stage production of Sophocles’ Oresteia. (Udo Kier, in an amusingly fey, Goth-in-the-daylight turn, plays Lee Myers, the ghoulishly effete theater maven who befriends Brad.) Other flashbacks reveal Brad’s torturous relationship with his creepy, cartoonishly needy mother (Grace Zabriskie) and his path from soul-searching anti-hippie (“Stop meditating!” he barks at his stoned campground pals, “I want people to think, come up with a coherent argument”) to Oedipal nutcase.
Working equally in the mode of comedy and tragedy, Herzog piles on the absurdities with a series of non sequitur bits (at significant moments, the actors freeze in a living-still tableaux), visual gags (Peter Zeitlinger’s camera tracks a can of Quaker Oatmeal at pavement level as it rolls down Brad’s driveway), arch line readings (“Oh, I’m so sorry,” coos Dafoe in the midst of interviewing Ingrid and Lee, “I didn’t even ask if you wanted coffee”), and dark humor (“I’m not going to discover my boundaries,” declares Brad to his group on the banks of the Urubamba River, after chastening them with a rant against pot, vitamins, herbal concoctions, Native American spirituality, and New Age nonsense.) As he lays the groundwork for Brad’s descent into madness, Herzog spikes the atmosphere of weirdness with doses of unexpectedly piquant humor. When Brad and Lee road-trip to an ostrich farm operated by Brad’s coarse-tongued Uncle Ted (go-to oddball Brad Dourif), hoping to procure a sword prop that Orestes uses to slay his mother, one of the giant “dinosaurs in drag” plucks a pair of eyeglasses out of Lee’s shirt pocket, to his comically feigned disgust. Lee then tries to school Uncle Ted on the legacy of Sophocles and the play he’s cast Brad in, to which the cretinous old codger simply replies, “The only thing the Greeks know how to play with is each other’s balls!” (Dourif gets the richest punchlines.)
Quite apart from the off-color characterizations and Lynchian tics (yes, there’s a dream-sequence dwarf, though he doesn’t speak backwards), Herzog is less overtly facetious when observing Brad’s mental decline, especially as his confused, vaguely religious conversion experience (“Call me Farouk”) seems tethered, albeit inscrutably, to his artistic ambition. Brad’s solo excursions to Cuzco, Peru and northwest China are rich with inner meaning (Herzog pushes his handheld DV camera right into the whiskered, weathered, mostly unsmiling faces of Uyghur men and Peruvian Indian peasants, suggesting both the intensity of the experience and the almost confrontational attitude of the documentarian). But we’re never privy to his hermetic thinking (at one point, a basketball becomes his personal totem of cosmic stability, “the unwobbling pivot of the world”) or the specific ways in which these exotic journeys have shaped, or merely stalled, the evolution of his madness. Only when he takes the stage, memorizing lines of the Oresteia with the zeal of a Biblical fundamentalist, and begins to identify too closely with the matricidal Greek hero do the fault lines in his psyche become too frightening for Lee and Ingrid to ignore. Shannon’s credibly dark, distressed, brooding embodiment of Brad, a lost soul for whom reality has become baffling (“Ingrid, did you see that? The world almost stopped,” he says in a park), is invested with admirable feeling. And Herzog, clearly empathetic with schizoid consciousness, immerses him in a mise-en-scène of lyrical weirdness, like a jeweler mounting a precious stone in the most ornate setting he can find.
As far back as 1975, Manny Farber (writing with Patricia Patterson) recognized that, for Herzog, “There is considerable dementia in all of us.” At the heart of his cinema is a volatile mix of ironic wit and brute fatalism, perhaps, but also a tenderness and sensitivity to the outcast, the delusional personality, a cast of mind and an attitude to life that “madness” imperfectly describes. Herzog is the last great German Romantic: He is a disciple, whether consciously or not, of Hamann, Goethe, Herder, Schiller, Schelling, and all the irrational thinkers who sprang from the pietist tradition, for whom the chaotic wildness of self-expression was poetic and beautiful, the only true summation of our mysterious vitality, against the stable patterning of life that Enlightenment reason brought to Western thought and science. (Just listen again to Herzog’s documentary voiceovers or—better yet—read any passage from his recently published Conquest of the Useless to get the full flavor of his Romantic leanings.) Surrealism was a late, modern offshoot of this doctrine, in which the artist mined the dark and unconscious forces that impel him—yet another connection between Lynch and Herzog. Farber himself summed up the director’s credo in a succinct paraphrase: “When things become irreal, this is the moment which moves me most.” True now as then, Herzog remains fascinated with the agonies of the human will, and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done is a flamboyantly odd, rigorously stylized elaboration of his antihero's inner tumult. It may not win a large audience or garner the sympathies of avowed Herzog fans, who might be disappointed by its offbeat excesses. But as Brad McCullum says at one point, a propos of nothing, “So what ... so what ... so what.”