Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Werner Herzog
Stars: Michael Shannon, Willem Dafoe, Chloe Sevigny, Udo Kier, Brad Dourif, Michael Pena, Grace Zabriskie.
Following a brief run as part of ACMI’s first look program, Werner Herzog’s latest film gets a brief, limited theatrical release. My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done is loosely based on a true story about an unstable actor who so identified with his role as Orestes in Euripides’ drama Electra, that he killed his mother.
Two of cinema’s most eccentric and idiosyncratic auteurs in David Lynch and Werner Herzog have joined forces for this unusual hostage drama. But somehow this joint effort between these two decidedly unique filmmakers is disappointing, and its elliptical and unconventional narrative style will frustrate many. This is mainly Herzog’s film, as Lynch’s role is mainly as a producer, and he apparently had little hands on involvement.
Lynch is best known for his edgy films like the cult favourite Blue Velvet and the impenetrable and enigmatic Mulholland Drive, etc. German filmmaker Herzog moves between documentaries and surreal dramas. He is best known for his offbeat and uneven tales of madness and obsession, like Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre and the recent straight to DVD Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans, which featured another characteristically intense and manic performance from Nicolas Cage. Herzog’s previous films set in America have turned his critical outsider’s eye onto the American urban landscape, giving us a disturbing and unsettling perspective.
Here Brad McCullum (played with usual intensity by Michael Shannon) is an actor who takes his role in the Greek drama too seriously and flips out, killing his mother with a sword. This sets in motion a bizarre hostage situation that unfolds at a glacial pace. McCullum claims that he has visions of God and that he hears voices in his head.
While a heavily armed SWAT team surrounds McCullum’s house, weary veteran detective Havenhurst (Willem Dafoe) arrives and begins negotiations. He also questions McCullum’s fiancee Ingrid (indie veteran Chloe Sevigny) and his acting mentor and director Lee (Udo Kier). Through a series of elaborate and statically staged flashback sequences we learn more about McCullum and what caused his unhinged behaviour. There is a trip to Peru that involves mysticism and a tragedy that has left him damaged.
Herzog has populated his cast with actors who often appear in edgy independent films, but even here many of them seem disconnected from the material, and their delivery of lines seems stilted and forced at times. Dafoe phones in his performance, while Sevigny seems disinterested and confused by the demands of her role. Brad Dourif continues his string of offbeat characters with his role here as McCullum’s uncle who runs an ostrich farm. Grace Zabriskie plays McCullum’s mother, a gentle and caring woman, which makes her violent demise even more shocking. Michael Pena is given little to do as Havenhurst‘s inept partner Vargas.
With suitably intense and erratic performances in films like Revolutionary Road and Take Shelter, Shannon seems to be the current go-to guy for unhinged characters, getting the sort of roles that John Malkovich may have played a decade ago. Here he makes the most of his role as the disaffected and deranged McCullum.
The script, written in collaboration with Herbert Golder, who has worked with Herzog on several projects, is elliptical and subverts the usual tropes of the crime drama. The film is full of Herzog’s signature themes, bizarre ideas, surreal touches, and disregard for conventional film making techniques.
Both Lynch and Herzog are known for their unique brand of cinematic weirdness, but even diehard aficionados of their respective work may find this collaboration too difficult to sit through.