My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? – celebrating absurdity and eccentricity in a bland and indifferent world

Werner Herzog, “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?” (2009)

In this film, based on an actual incident, director Werner Herzog pursues his life-long fascination with characters who harbour grand obsessions to the point of carrying out acts that endanger people’s lives and cause upheaval, but which ultimately have very little effect in the overall scheme of things in an indifferent universe. Two plainclothes detectives (Willem Dafoe and Michael Peña) are called to the scene of a crime in a neighbourhood in San Diego, in southern California. There, they discover the body of a middle-aged woman with severe stab wounds made by a sword. Very quickly, they realise her murderer is her son Brad (Michael Shannon) who is holed up in a Spanish-style house next door with two “hostages” (actually his pet flamingoes). While Brad taunts the police in a stand-off that stops through-street traffic and attracts curious neighbours and passers-by, the two detectives are regaled by Brad’s fiancée Ingrid (Chloe Sevigny), a play director (Udo Kier) who sacked Brad from his last acting role and an injured woman from the crime scene about the character of Brad and his peculiar obsessions, and how these explain his motives for killing his mother (Grace Zabriskie).

It’s a slow-burner of a film with an oddly detached air for a plot that would normally have been treated Hollywood-style with lots of shoot-outs and shouting, an emphasis on the kind of crime scene investigation that’s been done over and over on too many movies and TV shows on the subject, and a cast of grimly determined and smartly dressed actors posing as attorneys, forensic detectives, pathologists and hard-working SWAT team members who always arrest the right people and do not harm innocents during the course of their duty (in contrast to what too often happens in real life in modern America). All the characters are rather eccentric: Dafoe and Peña’s characters tend to be useless rather than useful and settle for listening to war stories from the murderer’s significant friends; Ingrid seems a passive girl, nothing more than Brad’s trusty shadow; and the play director Meyers who just “happens” to show up reminisces at great length about how Brad is a great actor but had to be thrown out of the play for taking the method style of acting too seriously. The eccentricity of the major cast characters at least is an interesting contrast with the bland generic style of the neighbourhood and culture in which the action proceeds. The SWAT team seems quite intrusive when America’s finest turns up but at least the guys get their man without any Hollywood pyrotechnics.

Most of the major characters are oddly endearing though one occasionally feels the urge to kick them along a bit as the pace of the film is very leisurely, perhaps a little too much so. The acting tends to be adequate and enough for what the characters are required to do and only Shannon as Brad is required to convincingly play a young man who’s a few kangaroos short of a full mob in his inner paddock. Even Brad comes across as likeable and eccentric in a charming sort of way at times in spite of his clear mental instability, inability to relate to others normally and psychopathic tendencies. His relationship with his mother is unusually intense and one might draw parallels between this couple and that other famous couple, Norman Bates and his mum (of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” fame). Brad clearly identifies with his role as the Greek tragic hero Orestes who kills his mother Clytemnestra for having betrayed and killed her husband (and Orestes’s dad) King Agamemnon, in the play Meyers is directing. (The film doesn’t say which Greek play based on the legend of Orestes and his torment by the Furies for having done in Mum is being performed.) At last we understand why Brad had to kill his mother and why he hides in the neighbouring house surrounded by police: he is re-enacting the part of the play where Orestes takes refuge in the goddess Athena’s temple while the Furies bother him with their nagging and flapping. Unfortunately for Brad, the two detectives aren’t playing Athena and Hermes, and the gawping neighbours aren’t fine and upstanding Athenian citizens who can judge on the correctness or not of Brad’s actions in murdering Mum as some sort of revenge for having got rid of Dad.

As is to be expected with Herzog’s films, “My Son …” features some very beautiful cinematography, particularly of flashback scenes in which Brad goes travelling down the Amazon river or visits Central Asia or other foreign places. The film sometimes has a documentary feel in scenes where Brad and Ingrid go travelling together to Mexico and are serenaded by a mariachi band.

As a celebration of individuality, eccentricity and absurdity in an otherwise dreary and conformist world, “My Son …” succeeds well for a small-scale Lynchian film that manages to be a microcosm of sorts of a much greater world. Shannon can be overly dramatic but this might the consequence of decisions made by Herzog; certainly Shannon’s acting makes a greater impression than the overall minimalist style offered by his fellow cast members. The outburst of individuality does not last long though: once Brad has been hustled into the police car with his wrists handcuffed and driven away, life returns to boring and uneventful normality, the universe yawns and continues on its way, and the neighbours drift back to their homes to watch Hollywood-style CSI crime shows and movies. Brad’s desire to become Something Significant is continually undercut throughout the film by his inadequacies: he is frightened of nature when he confronts it, he shrinks from pursuing spirituality, he is unable to function as an adult in the world around so he lives with his mother as an unemployed and unemployable actor and musician. The film manages to evoke some sympathy from viewers for people with grand ideas about their place in the world but unable to achieve them due to personality flaws and consequently forced to live lives of frustration that might end in tragedy.


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