3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? (Werner Herzog, 2009)
I have spent years singing Werner Herzog's praises every time I see one of his movies. I think the last of his movies I have less than an enthusiastic review to was The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser, and I saw that, what, ten years ago? (Actually, I looked it up--eight years ago, in August of 2005.) Man, I even defended, and strongly, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. But every streak must come to an end, and the architect of this one's demise is the 2009 film My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?. (For the record: over the past ten years, I have seen nine Herzog films. This is the first to which I have given a below-average review.)
Supposedly based on a true story, the film tells us the tale of Brad Macallam (Michael Shannon, who like most of the cast stayed on with Herzog after BL:PoCNO wrapped to make this one), a man who seems to have gone insane during a recent trip to South America, and who just killed his mother (Twin Peaks' Grace Zabriskie) with a sword, taking the whole Stanislavsky thing a little too far (he's playing Orestes in a community-theater play). The bulk of the film is told in flashback, as detectives Havenhurst (Antichrist's Willem Dafoe) and Vargas (End of Watch's Michael Pena) try to piece together the events leading up to the murder by interviewing neighbors and tracking Brad, who left the scene before anyone realized he was the perp.
I have to admit, I'm kind of amused by the meta level of "Brad's acting drives him nuts" contrasted with Willem Dafoe's portrayal of Max Schreck in Merhige's Shadow of the Vampire, in which Murnau (John Malkovich) tries to convince the cast that Schreck (who, in the film, really IS a vampire) never appears out of character because he's a Stanislavsky devotee. And the scenery in this flick? Oh, man. I have a tendency to lust after distinctive houses in movies. (That awful 1999 remake of The Haunting? Its only saving grace was the house.) But the movie itself feels soulless to me. Maybe it's Michael Shannon's flat affect, which I'm sure was intentional--Shannon is far too good an actor not to have to work at coming off this horribly, and Herzog is exceptional at getting actors to do exactly what he wants them to do. (How else could he have worked so well with Klaus Kinski all those years?) It works for the character, and if that "based on a true story" gig has this running anywhere close to reality, it's probably in the personality of the main character...but that ends up making for a ponderous movie with a desperately unlikable main character. Many folks who saw this movie found him fascinating, and I am willing to put this down to personal bias, but he just didn't do it for me. Which is all the more frustrating because so much of this cast is comprised of people I adore--Dafoe, Shannon, Zabriskie, Brad Dourif, Loretta Devine, the list goes on. And yet...I just couldn't find a way to grab onto this movie and hold. In my eyes, it was an exceptionally rare miss for Herzog. Your mileage may well vary. **
- Published on Amazon.com
This is a very hard film for most people to swallow, although a lot of people have liked it. It is a Lynch film, but it is directed by Werner Herzog. And it is, fascinatingly, as good as and different than an actual Lynch film. It captivates the way any Lynch film does and it remains with you after seeing it the way a Herzog film does.
The mood created by Herzog and the script by Herbert Golder indicate that they were intending to focus on the type of film Lynch makes normally, especially as Lynch was the executive producer of this film. Perhaps the script was the reason Lynch decided to executive produce the script by Golder, which I thought was a perfectly oblique and befuddling script, the kind we normally expect from the pen of someone like Lynch or Charlie Kaufman, something that you can't wrap your mind around intellectually and the kind that deconstructing seems to only lead to further labyrinthine layers of metaphysical cul-de-sacs and switchbacks. Essentially, it is more suited for people who enjoy Lynch rather than Herzog's admirers. But it really works for both demographics, since Lynch people tend to also be Herzog people and vice-versa.
It is probably a great testament to Herbert Golder that both Lynch and Herzog signed on to this film. I see it as an unprecedented collaboration in some ways. Herzog doing his version of Lynch is also without precedent, since Herzog has always executed only what he wants, his own vision. So I see this film almost as Herzog's acknowledgment, tribute to, and admiration of David Lynch. Lynch is hard not to love for any cinephile, since he really is able to be tremendously subversive and deeply spiritual (mostly fathoming our demons) without leaving one feeling devastated or wrecked, unless you count Lynch's earliest effort, Eraserhead, which took me, personally, two weeks to digest and get over. Eraserhead was like shock treatment or some kind of mild lobotomy, perhaps shaking the foundations of the feigned normalcy of American life - and also was the direct forerunner, almost a prequel to, the themes and dark beauty of Lynch's Blue Velvet. And then the continuation of those visions, of course, in Wild at Heart.
Yes, Lynch's focus is uniquely on Americana and Herzog seems to have looked more and more closely at our American cultural phenomena in some of his recent films, "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call" among them. He also seems to be spending more time on our shores, also appearing as an actor in Tom Cruise's "Jack Reacher", most recently. I'm sure that was just a paycheck, but the very existence of his cameo in that film speaks volumes about Herzog not shunning or feeling above the Hollywood blockbuster and the world those blockbusters inhabit. I think these things also represent Herzog personally mellowing quite a bit in his older years and allowing himself to truly experience and be part of everything, even the vast and transparent and mostly useless illusion that Hollywood blockbusters remain. I think that Herzog allowing himself more breadth has been an indication, also, that he feels confident that artists and creators like him, Lynch, and so on can have more of an impact on the large-profile films if they are actually directly involved, rather than only making the smaller-budget and less-seen films that directors like Herzog and Lynch traditionally have made that wind up influencing the bigger-budget films in distinct but often unacknowledged ways.
"My son, My son..." is an extraordinary film to me because it seems to take the Lynch flavor and the hilarity Lynch indulges in while writing and making his films and incredibly and faithfully being adapted to Herzog's strengths, without becoming a Herzog film and without also becoming just a Lynch homage or attempt at Lynch's famous weirdness, although some have indeed said this. I think the real source of this film is in the writing, Herbert Golder. And in Michael Shannon's performance and Shannon's ability to carry any film he is in. There is a lot to like and/or love about this film for many reasons and I think it stands the test of time, it remains strong and relevant due to its integrity and its pedigree. I do expect and hope that this film is more acknowledged than it has been, because of the absence of a powerful David Lynch film since Mulholland Drive and because it is remarkable that Herzog still has magic of different varieties in his arsenal. Of course, Herzog is an exceptional and inspiring maverick, especially given that he does not seem to have become cynical of the industry and maintains a love, passion, and unbridled enthusiasm for film that many have lost due to being in the business for too long or from general lack of interest or burnout or other priorities, as seems to have happened to Lynch himself (Inland Empire seems to often be ignored as the real follow-up to Mulholland Drive, since it is considered to have been very experimental and almost an afterthought by Lynch, as he gradually seems to lose interest in making features.). If it takes Werner Herzog himself to make the next Lynch film, in the form of "My Son, My Son" in this case, most of us will gladly accept it, especially being that the results are very satisfying and result in the kind of film, like Lynch's earlier films and many of Herzog's, that make many of us want to write and make films that are as fun and as interesting as this film and the two directors' best works.