Review: 'My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done'
San Diego Murder Case Provides Basis for Lynch-Herzog Collaboration
A new film looks to a decades old San Diego murder case as inspiration. But what’s even more intriguing is the behind the scenes pairing of iconoclastic filmmakers David Lynch and Werner Herzog for "My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done" (opening June 11 at Reading's Gaslamp Stadium 15 Theaters).
The trailer for “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?” makes it look like an episode of “CSI” or “Law and Order.” But you can’t judge a film by its trailer when you have David Lynch as producer and Werner Herzog as director. The film addresses genre conventions as it depicts a stand off between detectives and a murder suspect holed up in his home with hostages.
Detective Vargas: I ordered his pizza. I got an idea why don’t we lace it with sleeping pills.
Detective Havenhurst: It's not gonna work Vargas. You watch too much TV.
Detective Vargas: So what are you going to do about the getaway car?
Detective Havenhurst: The classic thing, just play for time.
Herzog draws attention to the clichés, then delivers them but does so in such a self-conscious, stilted manner that you have to conclude it’s for effect. And since the story deals with an unhinged mind, the style and tone seem to be all about presenting a tweaked version of reality.
The basis for Herzog’s film is a real 1979 murder case in which a UCSD grad student killed his mother with a 3-foot saber. His actions eerily mirrored the events in the Greek tragedy “Orestes,” in which he’d been cast.
Brad: Some people act a role, others play a part.
But Herzog only uses the barest bones of the case as the jumping off point for his film. From “Aguirre: The Wrath of God” on through to his recent “Bad Lieutenant,” Herzog has been fascinated by notions of reality, sanity, and madness. In “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done” Michael Shannon plays Brad, a part time actor still living at home with his mother. Everyone agrees that Brad hasn’t been himself since a trip to Peru.
Brad: I am not going to take your vitamin pills, [thunder] I am not going to take your vitamin pills, I’m not going to take your herbal tea… I am not going to discover my boundaries, I am going to stunt my inner growth.
Shannon’s delivery is almost comical in its lack of emotion as Brad rejects these SoCal lifestyle clichés. Herzog constructs a very stylized film, one that almost plays like a bland crime scene re-enactment in which non-professionals give stilted reads of expository dialogue. The irony here is that Herzog has top actors like Shannon, Willem Dafoe, Chloe Sevigny, Udo Kier, and Grace Zabriskie. But these superb performers also have a penchant for the perverse so they give a creepy edge to their flat line readings. This makes the film feel deliberately uncomfortable and awkward – something akin to how Brad probably feels in the world.
The film’s style may also reflect the somewhat incongruous collaboration of Lynch and Herzog. Both are talented filmmakers. But Lynch has taken up meditation and has been devoting more time to that than to filmmaking. In interviews, Herzog has proclaimed his dislike for meditation and for Americans who meditate. Yet “My Son” looks as if Herzog has been converted and has made a film that dives into Lynch’s particular brand of meditation induced creativity. So “My Son” has a trippy, Lynchian dream quality that’s not quite like anything Herzog has created in the past.
Brad: Last night I took the Coronado bridge at 130 miles an hour I wanted to know how it felt in Star Wars driving though the shadow of death
For budgetary reasons Herzog shot the film with a digital RED camera, something he’s described as an “immature” and “slow.” It makes you wonder if the slow pace of the film and its still life images were a result in part with his frustration with the technology.
If you take “My Son” at face value, it plays like a painfully lame take on police procedurals. But if you look below the surface and question Herzog’s approach to this potboiler crime story, you may find something daring and provocative. In the end, “My Son” serves up Herzog’s eerie meditation on what can unhinge a mind and drive someone to murder.
Companion viewing: "Twin Peaks," "Aguirre: The Wrath of God," "Burden of Dreams," "Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe"