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My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?
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The first collaboration between legendary filmmakers David Lynch and Werner Herzog, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done is loosely based on the mysterious true crime story of a young stage actor who, obsessed with a Greek tragedy he's rehearsing, slays his own mother with a sword. Academy Award-Nominees Michael Shannon, Chloë Sevigny, and Willem Dafoe headline this psychological thriller written and directed by Herzog, produced by Lynch, and featuring Grace Zabriskie, Udo Kier, and Brad Dourif.
The film takes place in Southern California, the story comes from an actual case, and the cast includes Willem Dafoe and Grace Zabriskie. It sounds like a David Lynch picture, except it isn't. Instead Lynch produced, while Werner Herzog directed. If Bad Lieutenant was Herzog's swamp noir, My Son, My Son is his desert noir. In another Lynchian touch, two cops (Dafoe and Michael Peña) provide entry into the San Diego-set story. Called to the scene of a murder, they meet actor Brad McCullum (Michael Shannon), who utters "Razzle dazzle" as they enter the flamingo-pink ranch house to find Mrs. McCullum (Zabriskie), dead by sword. Before Brad's fiancée, Ingrid (Chloë Sevigny), arrives, Herzog flashes back to Brad's days in Peru, where he found his "inner voice." The flashbacks continue to his participation in the famously matricidal Oresteia (Udo Kier plays the director). Combined with Ernst Reijseger's off-kilter score and Peter Zeitlinger's sun-bleached cinematography, it all exerts a certain queasy fascination, but Herzog's "whydunit" never really takes flight. Unlike Nicolas Cage's loopy lieutenant, Shannon invests Brad with a more recessive quality, which gives his madman greater credibility--at the expense of empathy. And yet… there's a scene with Shannon, Brad Dourif, and a tiny man in a tuxedo that offers the sort of what-the-heck magic that makes even the lesser films of Herzog and Lynch more interesting than most. Fortunately, there are enough of those moments to make the movie worthwhile, though not quite the messed-up masterpiece it might've been. --Kathleen C. Fennessy
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We hear the story, told by consummate actors. There is no graphic violence, only psycho-violence of the most common kind: mother dote love. It is quite accurate, quite representative of what I've seen at large, albeit sharpened up and presented with utmost clarity. But that's what theatre is all about: showing and telling.
Brad is like a child, taken by everything, as his guardians try to sweep him along, chastising him for not keeping up. But he's interested in everything, and can't stop himself from stopping to look. You can see what he sees is fetching--architecture, escalators, shining lights through glasses, etc: everything kids like. And so he is growing. But instead of growing out of that phase, usually called growing up, he grows...to cut his root, his mom. Why didn't he commit suicide, though?
In the Orestes play, we are told by the director that generations of his ancestors have treated themselves with unspeakable cruelty. Does it *dawn* on Orestes to stop it? And if so, why doesn't he kill himself? That is the question.
Nothing much happens in the movie, if you are looking at the outward activity. One reviewer contrasted this movie with The Bad Lieutenant, and that's a good contrast. The action is elsewhere and will be frustrating to those not liking story telling.
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.
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