My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done

Shannon is a fine choice but the material isn't.

It goes without saying that the teaming of weird wonders Werner Herzog and David Lynch (who executive produces here) is a dream collaboration for just about any cineaste. However, while Herzog has found yet another bewilderingly off-kilter character for inspiration, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done falls flat due to languid pacing issues and a dry, flat presentation that represents the worst work of the auteur’s career. In short, this is a reminder that even the usually consistent Herzog can have an off-season.

The film revolves around Brad McCullum (Michael Shannon), a San Diego man who has suffered a break with reality and, inspired by Aeschylus’ Greek tragedy Oresteia, murders his mother with an ancient sword. Cutting between flashbacks told by his fiancée, Ingrid (Chloe Sevigny), the standoff situation with McCullum and the police, led by Detective Havenhurst (Willem Dafoe), and the aftermath, we slowly gain a picture of a very unique brand of mania.

Early on, there’s the distinct feeling that My Son, My Son is, in the vein of Herzog’s hilarious Bad Lieutenant, another satire of clichéd police procedurals. As Dafoe combs through the crime scene, obsessing over coffee cops, one has to wonder – why? While this moment is amusing, to root the film firmly in any one trajectory is difficult, given the scattershot nature of both the oddball comedy and creepy drama that Herzog employs here. There are some interesting ideas at play – especially that Brad is disaffected following a trip to Peru, in which his friends perished in a white water rafting accident – yet layered on thicker is a disinteresting bout of self-conscious quirkiness, in which Brad appears to answer to what might be a voice inside his head, named Farooq. Unfortunately, the blandness of the insanity lives up to neither Klaus Kinski nor Nicolas Cage (through no fault of Michael Shannon, who tries his best to make sense of the mess), and the slow moving, esoteric nature of the plot reinforces those few things that make Herzog’s films inaccessible to many otherwise willing audiences.

The dialogue is peculiarly styled almost from the outset, yet it is so uninspired in form and delivery – perhaps intentionally – that it evokes little but inertia from the audience. Getting involved in the mystery is difficult when the actors seem so lackadaisacal and uncaring, and Herzog especially seems to be working at his laziest here. It is evident that this film will test the attention of even ardent Herzog and Lynch fans – this critic included – with a murky visual style and uncharacteristically flat direction. Shannon tries hard with what he has, though stitled under the dry idiosyncracies of Herzog’s command, he merely treads water. Dafoe’s material is altogether easier to make sense of, so his performance is resultantly more satisfying, and though Udo Kier and Chloe Sevigny are basically Basil Exposition, they are decent and probably the film’s least frustrating characters.

Of course, with Lynch involved, it’s not surprising that there’s a cutaway to a midget – a tad lazy by now, no? – which is followed by a false freeze frame as Shannon and Brad Dourif try their best to stand still, wavering a tiny bit presumably just for the sake of being facetious. So indulgent and plodding is the film in scenes such as this that it is as though Herzog is satirising both his and Lynch’s sometimes impenetrable style. Unfortunately, Herzog’s will-sapping approach here prohibits audience complicity, and as such there’s not a whole lot to laugh at.

The experience is generally just torturous. Though versed in descents into madness, and even with a lead as talented as Shannon, the whole thing collapses fatally under the dire script and more importantly, the soporific direction. The final ten minutes finally start to make some sense as we return to the crime and stuff is tied together – even garnering a laugh in this stead – yet just when it finally seems to find some ground, it ends.

Elliptical in terms of both dialogue and style, this sleep-inducing effort represents a rare misstep for Werner Herzog, failing to make the best of what should have been a fitting partnership with David Lynch. A shining example of bad “art house” cinema; this self-indulgent and pretentious mess is best reserved for Herzog die-hards only.

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done goes on limited UK cinema release on Friday, September 10th.


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