My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? By Werner Herzog (with David Lynch’s name attached)

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(My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? had its Gala UK Premier at the 64th Edinburgh International Film Festival. So far it has screened exclusively at festivals and popular distribution is uncertain. It is scheduled to be released on DVD in the USA on 14 September 2010.)

Grace Zabriskie, Michael Shannon and Chlöe Sévigny eat Jell-O.

Grace Zabriskie, Michael Shannon and Chlöe Sévigny eat Jell-O.

The Searchers begins with Westerner Stan Jones’ heavy, harmonizing ballad, which, to the music of Max Steiner, asks: “What makes a man to wander?” Lee Marvin, with a similar profundity of voice in The Killers (1964), wonders: “What makes a man take a bullet without trying to escape it?” (The 1946 version answers, “a double-crossin’ dame!”) Werner Herzog’s latest film, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, asks its plot-spinning question in the title and its audience, together with Willem Defoe’s detective and the baffled people he questions, have it lodged in their minds throughout.

The tone of this title question is as facetious as the rest of the film. It is asked in the archaic wording of a slain mother: not Clytemnestra (though the killer, also an amateur tragedian, is familiar with Sophocles’ Electra, from which he was fired for taking too many liberties with the script); but rather Mrs. MacCallum (Grace Zabriskie) of West Coast suburbia, who was stuck with a samurai sword on a pristine California morning by her son, Brad (Michael Shannon), who has been crazed with delusions of prophetic grandeur ever since an extreme white-water rafting trip to Peru went wrong one year ago.

Detective Hank Havenhurst (Defoe) tries to lure Brad out of the pink bungalow, where until today he has lived with his mother. A blanching filter and flattened depth-of-field make the place look as though it is submerged, sealed behind the protective glass of a fish tank. Its synthetic-looking yard is decorated with plastic flamingos and bright green cactuses, a motif that’s maintained within. Hank questions Ingrid (Chloë Sevigny), the matricidal’s fiancée, and Lee Meyers, the theatre director who fired Brad from the role of Orestes (played by Udo Kier, who comes strikingly close to the inimitable Peter Lorre in this role). Also consulted are the neighbors, Mrs. Roberts (Irma P. Hall) and her daughter, in whose house Brad committed the heinous deed over coffee. Through the bizarre accounts they provide we attempt to contextualize the murder and find a motive. But the latter is impossible: either he is insane, or actually possessed by some supernatural force caught in the Peruvian jungle.

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? was made on a relatively tight budget of $2 million (a deliberate choice, intended as a challenge to the sustainability of the now all too common $100 million plus budgets). But as Herzog remarks, My Son, My Son… looks like it could be a $40 million movie; the production is not wanting in high-profile professionals, although it is notably co-written by a first-time screenwriter, the clearly more-than-competent Harvard classicist, Herbert Golder, who has previously worked as researcher and editor of archival footage for Herzog.

In its elaborate, unpredictable narrative, darkest of humor (the film is based on a true story) and ecstatic performances, My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done? is extremely confident; it wears this confidence loosely, though, also flourishing with the stylistic idiosyncrasies that characterize Herzog’s romantic manner of filmmaking, on-the-spot and uncontrolled. That the central character, Brad MacCallum, is an actor at once hindered and advantaged by his insanity, encourages comparison to Herzog’s collaborations with Klaus Kinski (including Aguirre, Wrath of God; Nosferatu; Fitzcarraldo; Cobra Verde) and his one-sided exploration of the relationship in My Best Fiend (1999). What most sets My Son, My Son… apart from the rest of Herzog’s oeuvre is its primarily suburban setting, disparate to the remote jungles and deserts so much a part of his earlier work (there are flashbacks to Peru, but these are brief). Suburban America is more David Lynch’s territory and it is here we see his influence exceeding the token credit as one of four executive producers.

Brad Dourif appears as Uncle Ted, a breeder of giant birds. He has become a stock character actor for Herzog since appearing as The Alien in The Wild Blue Yonder (2005). (In Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, he’s a seedy bookkeeper.) His presence in My Son, My Son… connects the film not only to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (where he plays Raymond, one of Dennis Hopper’s entourage), but, most importantly, to John (Jhon) Huston’s adaptation of Flannery O’Conner’s Wise Blood (1979), in which Dourif stars as the mad Hazel Motes, a veteran-turned-preacher, founder of the first Church Without Jesus Christ Crucified. His fervent portrayal and diction peppered with racist slurs as Uncle Tim is the same treatment as that given to old Hazel Motes. And when Brad MacCallum rolls his icon – a box of Puritan Oatmeal – out the garage door and plays Washington Phillips’ “I was born to preach the gospel,” the reference is complete. As Wise Blood came late in the career of John Huston (almost 40 years after his directorial debut, The Maltese Falcon), so My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? comes late in the career of Werner Herzog (it is his 57th film); yet both pictures feel fresh, liberated, independent of the long careers of their makers.*

Brad Dourif and Michael Shannon share a profound vision.

* It is not the only similarity between Herzog and Huston: both have used cinema as a route for adventure, filming on location in the most difficult of places. The production rafts for filming Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo seem loosely based on what Huston’s used for The African Queen. It is not surprising that Herzog has The Treasure of the Sierra Madre on his Rogue Film School’s required viewing list.

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