My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? (2010) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
27Oct/100

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? (2010)

Andrew INDIFFERENTOf all the films I've seen by Werner Herzog, only his remake of Bad Lieutenant struck any sort of positive chord with me.  The rest of the time he seems to buy into the fact that he's viewed as the artists artist.  He goes about creating self consciously weird and unapproachable works that have intricate photography, but no real center to speak of, and leave me incredibly indifferent.  My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? features a great central performance by Michael Shannon that quickly dissolves in with the ostriches, flamingos, dwarfs, hippies, cyclical dialogue and other oddities.

Once again, no center to speak of, and a lot of off the walls craziness that has no real purpose.  Color me very disappointed.

The film starts off with two cops played by Willem Dafoe and Michael Pena responding to a 1144.  Dafoe cheerfully explains that an 1144 means that someone is dead, like really really dead, and in a few moments sets up the exact tone that we're going to be following for the rest of the film.  Herzog starts off each scene with a seemingly "normal" situation then through quirk of dialogue or by sudden invasion of exotic animal, steers the scene into an entirely different direction.

So we follow the cops to a murder scene where, across the street, the primary suspect has barricaded himself in a home and declared that he has taken two hostages.  This is Brad McCullum, our mad prophet played by Michael Shannon, whose maddness and it's origins are revealed through one of several dozen flashbacks.  This structure did not work at all, and just ended up frustrating me more than anything else.  The cops arrive, we get a flashback showing Brad's last few moments - Brad's old girlfriend (Chloe Sevigny) shows up, then we get a flashback showing what they had to go through while he was living with his mom (Grace Zabriskie) - they talk about the sword being a possible murder weapon, then we get a flashback about the sword.

The play Orestes figures largely into the plot in ways that are thunderingly obvious and yet strange at the same time.

On and on the flashbacks pile up until it becomes a question of guessing which word in any given sentence will trigger the next temporal freak out a la Pee Wee's Playhouse.  It's annoying and keeps dragging the audience around on what Herzog thinks is interesting instead of what would be most interesting for the story.  So the standoff continues as more people arrive, and slowly we learn of his rejecting of hippies (in an admittedly awesome moment where he renounces their mineral water and embraces Islam), his relationship with his mother, his strange theater career and many other odd elements.

Those elements could be constructed into an entertaining film, but this one is all over the place. The frequent detours that Herzog takes away from conventional scene structure become annoying moreso than entertaining.  Brad takes his theater director (Udo Keir) to an ostrich farm where an ostrich steals the director's glasses, then Brad is shown feeding the pet flamingos that are relaxing on his property, then we see many moments of Brad's mother dispensing Jello creepily.  It's all too much, too much weird, too little reason to process it all and we barely have time to take in what we just saw before Herzog flings us toward the next strange occurrence.

At least in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans there was a solid reason for Cage's titular Liutenant to behave so crazily.  Even the visions make sense in that film.  Here it just seems like a weird experiment in seeing what  random thing Herzog and crew (including producer David Lynch) can come up with next.  It's not amusing.

Perhaps there's a reason for this moment. I couldn't find it, and I certainly couldn't fathom why a full minute needed to be spent lingering on this shot.

This perhaps wouldn't be so disappointing if the film wasn't wasting a performance by Michael Shannon.  He's one of the best actors working today, and creates so many unique characters of pent up aggression and energy that it's a wonder watching him release that on-screen.  But there's no release in MSMSWHYD, and between the self consciously strange nature of the film and the incredibly detached acting of his costars, his performance ends up doing little good.  It's strange that not even Willem Dafoe, usually a go to guy for nervy weirdness, couldn't muster up more than clinical detachment for his role.

This is a truly baffling film and not one that I can recommend.  I love Lynch, and understand why he would want to work with Herzog, but the few Lynchian elements that creep into the production (such as the always terrifying Grace Zabriskie) just throw the whole thing off course more.  I commend Herzog for taking the time to shuttle Shannon around the world for some beautiful shots.  But more and more, I'm beginning to wonder if that's all Herzog really knows.  Landscape.

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? (2010)

Written and directed by Werner Herzog.
Starring Michael Shannon, Chloe Sevigny, Willem Dafoe, Michael Pena, Grace Zabriskie and Udo Keir.

Posted by Andrew

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