My Son My Son What Have Ye Done [Import]
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My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?
The film takes place in Southern California, the story comes from an actual case, and the cast includes Willem Dafoe and Grace Zabriskie. It sounds like a David Lynch picture, except it isn't. Instead Lynch produced, while Werner Herzog directed. If Bad Lieutenant was Herzog's swamp noir, My Son, My Son is his desert noir. In another Lynchian touch, two cops (Dafoe and Michael Peña) provide entry into the San Diego-set story. Called to the scene of a murder, they meet actor Brad McCullum (Michael Shannon), who utters "Razzle dazzle" as they enter the flamingo-pink ranch house to find Mrs. McCullum (Zabriskie), dead by sword. Before Brad's fiancée, Ingrid (Chloë Sevigny), arrives, Herzog flashes back to Brad's days in Peru, where he found his "inner voice." The flashbacks continue to his participation in the famously matricidal Oresteia (Udo Kier plays the director). Combined with Ernst Reijseger's off-kilter score and Peter Zeitlinger's sun-bleached cinematography, it all exerts a certain queasy fascination, but Herzog's "whydunit" never really takes flight. Unlike Nicolas Cage's loopy lieutenant, Shannon invests Brad with a more recessive quality, which gives his madman greater credibility--at the expense of empathy. And yet… there's a scene with Shannon, Brad Dourif, and a tiny man in a tuxedo that offers the sort of what-the-heck magic that makes even the lesser films of Herzog and Lynch more interesting than most. Fortunately, there are enough of those moments to make the movie worthwhile, though not quite the messed-up masterpiece it might've been. --Kathleen C. Fennessy
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I have spent years singing Werner Herzog's praises every time I see one of his movies. I think the last of his movies I have less than an enthusiastic review to was The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser, and I saw that, what, ten years ago? (Actually, I looked it up--eight years ago, in August of 2005.) Man, I even defended, and strongly, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. But every streak must come to an end, and the architect of this one's demise is the 2009 film My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?. (For the record: over the past ten years, I have seen nine Herzog films. This is the first to which I have given a below-average review.)
Supposedly based on a true story, the film tells us the tale of Brad Macallam (Michael Shannon, who like most of the cast stayed on with Herzog after BL:PoCNO wrapped to make this one), a man who seems to have gone insane during a recent trip to South America, and who just killed his mother (Twin Peaks' Grace Zabriskie) with a sword, taking the whole Stanislavsky thing a little too far (he's playing Orestes in a community-theater play). The bulk of the film is told in flashback, as detectives Havenhurst (Antichrist's Willem Dafoe) and Vargas (End of Watch's Michael Pena) try to piece together the events leading up to the murder by interviewing neighbors and tracking Brad, who left the scene before anyone realized he was the perp.
I have to admit, I'm kind of amused by the meta level of "Brad's acting drives him nuts" contrasted with Willem Dafoe's portrayal of Max Schreck in Merhige's Shadow of the Vampire, in which Murnau (John Malkovich) tries to convince the cast that Schreck (who, in the film, really IS a vampire) never appears out of character because he's a Stanislavsky devotee. And the scenery in this flick? Oh, man. I have a tendency to lust after distinctive houses in movies. (That awful 1999 remake of The Haunting? Its only saving grace was the house.) But the movie itself feels soulless to me. Maybe it's Michael Shannon's flat affect, which I'm sure was intentional--Shannon is far too good an actor not to have to work at coming off this horribly, and Herzog is exceptional at getting actors to do exactly what he wants them to do. (How else could he have worked so well with Klaus Kinski all those years?) It works for the character, and if that "based on a true story" gig has this running anywhere close to reality, it's probably in the personality of the main character...but that ends up making for a ponderous movie with a desperately unlikable main character. Many folks who saw this movie found him fascinating, and I am willing to put this down to personal bias, but he just didn't do it for me. Which is all the more frustrating because so much of this cast is comprised of people I adore--Dafoe, Shannon, Zabriskie, Brad Dourif, Loretta Devine, the list goes on. And yet...I just couldn't find a way to grab onto this movie and hold. In my eyes, it was an exceptionally rare miss for Herzog. Your mileage may well vary. **
"Blue Velvet captured something crucial about the way the U.S. present acted upon our nerve endings, something crucial that couldn't be analyzed or reduced to a system of codes or aesthetic principles or workshop techniques. The movie helped me realize that first-rate experimentalism is a way not to 'transcend' or 'rebel against' the truth but actually to *honor* it. It brought home that the very most important artistic communications take place at a level that not only isn't intellectual but isn't even fully conscious, that the unconscious's true medium isn't verbal but imagistic, and that whether the images are Realistic or Postmodern or Expressionistic or Surreal or what-the-hell-ever is less important than whether they feel true, whether they ring psychic cherries in the communicatee."
The important question is whether it succeeds at ringing psychic cherries. I can't speak for you, but for me the scene (beginning around the 20th minute) where Ingrid is trying to "straighten" the bed, and Brad comes and sits on it and wants to play music for her, and the mom barges in with brownies, "I'm just so happy for you both. ... Brad, can't you see that Ingrid is trying to straighten the bed?", the momentary look back before she leaves, "can't she ever knock?", and then she barges in again a few moments later, this time with wine, and then the prolonged, eerily-adoring stare--hoo boy that was one of the creepiest and realest and most magical scenes I've seen.
You cannot watch this as a normal movie, expecting clear answers, logic, or even linearity. It only works as an unconscious examination of who we are, the madness inside us.
P.S. - Other than the straightening the bed scene, the most magical scene in this movie begins around the 62nd minute, when Brad wanders around a crowded outdoor market in Kashgar, Xinjiang province, China. "Why is everyone staring at me?" It's a scene with no narrative ties to the rest of the story but somehow still fits perfectly. I learned from Wikipedia that this sequence was shot "guerrilla style" with a small digital camera because Herzog did not wish to endure the lengthy process to obtain shooting permits in China. So all of those faces you're seeing are genuine and unscripted (and slightly illegal).
Werner Herzog puts Michael Shannon and Willem Dafoe under your skin, like an itch hard to scratch.
The extra material is great as well, with interviews with Werner and behind the scenes footage.
There is also a nice little short film narrated by Mr. herzog himself.
This film will keep you thinking for days
Herzog's direction is flawless, and cameraman Peter Zeitlinger does his usual sparkling cinematography by making blasé San Diego seem feral. Ernst Reijseger's score is apropos to the scenes, but the weak link is the film's screenplay, written by Herzog and Herbert Golder. It is good, for all it does; the problem is with just a few more moments and scenes, here and there, this 91 minute film, at 100 or so minutes, could have hit greatness. Some critics missed the boat and panned this excellent work, usually bemoaning it as a bastard love child between director Herzog and producer David Lynch, but there is little Lynchian material here. It is all Herzog. And it is definitely NOT a black comedy. Moments of humor do not make a film a comedy. It is straight on drama, and very realistic to the point that its utter lack of real poesy hurts it, artistically. Still, this is a relative claim since Herzog oozes cinematic poesy in almost all his films.