Thursday, December 10, 2009

Movie Review: My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done?

My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done? **
Directed By:
Werner Herzog.
Written By: Herbert Golder & Werner Herzog.
Starring: Michael Shannon (Brad McCullum), Willem Dafoe (Detective Hank Havenhurst), Chloë Sevigny (Ingrid), Udo Kier (Lee Meyers), Brad Dourif (Uncle Ted), Michael Peña (Detective Vargas), Loretta Devine (Miss Roberts), Grace Zabriskie (Mrs. McCullum), Braden Lynch (Gary), Irma P. Hall (Mrs. Roberts), Verne Troyer (Midget).

Ask anyone who knows me, and they will tell you I have a high tolerance for weird movies. Some of my favorite movies are the ones that leave most people shaking their heads in disbelief at what they had just watched. But at a certain point, when movies are just weird for the sake of being weird, I lose patience. Such is the case with My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done? the new film directed by Werner Herzog and produced by David Lynch. By themselves, they are truly weird masters. Together they have come up with a movie with no discernable point except to be weird. The result, while certainly interesting, is altogether unsatisfying.

The movie stars Michael Shannon as Brad McCullum, a strange man who comes home for a trip to Peru and is never the same again. He was supposed to go White Water rafting with a group of friends, but when he sees just how violent the river is, he backed out. Smart move, because the rest of the group ended up dead. The movie opens when the police are called to a suburban San Diego neighborhood because a woman has just been stabbed with a sword, and is lying dead of her neighbor’s floor. Almost immediately, the police figure out the murderer is Brad, who was the woman’s son. But he has locked himself in his house, and told them that he has hostages inside, so they better not try anything.

The detective in charge is Hank Havenhurst (Willem Dafoe, an actor who it would seem, like Shannon, to be perfectly matched with Herzog), who wants to get to know Brad and see if they can resolve things peacefully. The movie is essentially made up of flashbacks as Hank interviews Brad’s fiancé Ingrid (Chloe Sevigny) and his mentor Lee (Udo Kier). Throughout the movie we get the picture of Brad as raving, religious fanatic, driven insane by his overbearing mother (Lynch favorite Grace Zabriskie), whom he cannot seem to leave. Except for his trip to Peru, he has never moved out of his mother’s house, and her weird hold on him is beginning to frustrate Ingird, who loves him, but wants a normal life.

Admittedly, this plot description does not sound overly weird, but it just describes what happens, not how the whole thing is presented. The film is, I think; supposed to be a surrealistic nightmare, full of strange images, where the bright sunny streets of San Diego suburbia contrast against the darker elements of the story. I say I think, because I’m not exactly sure. No one involved in the movie seems to have thought things through at all.

The movie starts out strangely, but fascinating none the less. Brad goes on his religious rantings and ravings, and does some truly strange things like rolling a can of Quaker Oats at the police. At first, I went along with the movie, thinking that Herzog must be building to something. If there is a director in the world better suited to telling the story of an obsessed religious fanatic, than I don’t know who it is. Throughout his career, Herzog has always tackled strange characters – whether they be in his features or his documentary. Normally, you meet the most fascinating characters in a Herzog movie.

The problem with this movie is that I do not think that anyone involved truly understands Brad – who he is, or what motivates him to do what he does. Sure, they provide some pop psychology to try and explain it, but it doesn’t really fit. Michael Shannon is a talented enough actor to make us believe he’s truly crazy, and to hold our interest, but eventually we discover that he is as clueless as everyone else is into what makes Brad tick. This is not so much a portrait of a weird man, but a movie about a man who does completely incomprehensible things. Why does he throw the oatmeal at the cops? Or leave his basketball in the park? Why doesn’t he move out of his mother’s house? Why can’t he act properly in the play he is so obviously obsessed with? What the hell is motivating this guy?

Because the movie never answers this question, the whole collapses under its own weight in weirdness. There are striking images in the movie, and despite the fact that Shannon doesn’t know what motivates Brad, he remains a fascinating actor to watch. Sevigny is truly sympathetic in her role as Ingrid, but I kept wondering not only how she ended up with Brad in the first place, but also why she is still around. A sane woman, and she appears to be sane, would have fled a long time ago. But what is the point of casting actors as gloriously weird as Willem Dafoe and Udo Kier, and then making them play perhaps the most thuddingly dull characters of their careers? Only Grace Zabriskie truly gets into her role, and that’s because hers is the simplest one in the movie to understand.

Herzog is a truly talented director. At the Toronto Film Festival, where I saw this movie, I also saw his brilliant Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, and that film had a madcap brilliance on display that I haven’t seen in a Herzog feature in years. My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done? seems to instead wallow in its weirdness. Herzog became more interested in doing something different, then in doing something well. The movie is a failure – an honorable failure to be sure – but a failure nonetheless.

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