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Though not as incomprehensible as David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive or Inland Empire, Werner Herzog’s My Son My Son What Have Ye Done calls attention to the medium of filmmaking through its unpolished strangeness. It’s not surprising that Lynch produced this Herzog film; you can almost see the fingerprints

The Criminal Mind

On the DVD, Herzog explains the tableaux without explaining them
On the DVD, Herzog explains the tableaux without explaining them

A woman lies dead, and her killer is apparently her own son. The suspect holes up in his house, taking hostages. A police detective tries to talk him down. The killer’s story is told through flashback as the cop questions a girlfriend, neighbors, and a former boss. Sounds like any number of offerings from Hollywood hacks.

But this is Lynch and Herzog’s movie, so it’s not about solving the mystery and resolving the conflict. Herzog is interested in knowing what the son’s madness was like. The suspect, Brad, is an actor (an intense Michael Shannon), his boss is an experimental theater director (Udo Kier); they were putting on a performance of the Oresteia, in which Orestes slays his own mother in revenge for her slaying of his father before going mad.

We learn from the girlfriend (ChloĆ« Sevigny) that Brad had a sudden personality change on a kayaking trip in Peru (ah, there’s Werner Herzog’s jungle!). When he returned, he seemed intensely obsessed. His director couldn’t control him, so he fired him. Brad followed the acting troupe to Calgary anyway and got so into the play that he disrupted the audience. In Calgary, someone on Herzog’s team managed to find an architectural “tunnel” only visible to one walking down the up escalator, which satisfies some component of Brad’s madness, when he sees it.

Weird Weirdness

The film’s weirdness — the ostrich farm; a little person on a redwood stump; a tableau of mother, son, and girlfriend — is justified — by the son’s madness, by the Oresteia, by a biblical reference to ostriches as careless mothers. Yet the weirdness feels weird. In a Lynch film and in many of Herzog’s films, it feels natural — like it belongs, yet in this Hollywood-seeming story, it just feels out of place.

Some of the depictions of Brad’s madness are inspired, like his notion that the face on the oatmeal box is God’s face (for me, when I was a boy, it was the king in our chess set that provided the face of God). The scenes of Brad standing out from the crowd in an authentic Mongolian market are surprising, unique, and effective. Shannon’s humorlessness and intensity rival the performance of Enrique Irazoqui as Christ in Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew.

Unfortunately the performances from the supporting men don’t hold up as well. Willem Dafoe (once an intense Christ himself) is invisibly mild, and the often frighteningly intense Udo Kier here seems more like a community theater amateur in his role as an experimental theater director.

I’m not a huge fan of Lynch’s movies, and My Son My Son What Have Ye Done felt to me more like a watered-down Lynch movie than a Herzog film. I liked parts of it, but on the whole I don’t think it’s worth a second look — or a first, unless you’re a huge fan of those involved.

Picture and Sound

There were one or two scenes where it looked like someone was trying to pump the contrast in a too-dark shadow. Is this a problem in the source or the DVD mastering process? The film itself has different looks for different timelines — the present timeline is relatively washed out and desaturated — so the problem in the contrast made me question how much of the DVD presentation was controlled and how much was accidental.

DVD Extras

There are two extras on this disc, both worth watching. The first is a short by Ramin Bahrani called The Plastic Bag in which Werner Herzog, in voiceover, plays the part of a floating plastic bag. There is an environmental message, not only at the end (with a powerful last line of dialogue), but also over the duration of the film as Bahrani and Herzog imbue our most disposable junk with spirit, purpose, and life.

The Interview with Herzog and Herbert Golder, the film’s two screenwriters, sheds a little light on the story behind My Son My Son What Have Ye Done. Their conversation about the film helps ground it. Herzog explains (without explaining) the unnatural-seeming tableaux used in the film. They discuss the true story that inspired the script, and the madness of the real Brad, whose cluttered trailer (with altar to Aguirre, The Wrath of God) freaked out even Herzog.

How to Use This DVD

If you insist on watching My Son My Son What Have Ye Done, then you might as well watch the interview after you’ve seen the feature. Do watch The Plastic Bag, too.