By at September 13, 2010 | 11:57 pm | Print

4 / 5 stars

My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done? DVD Box Cover ArtAfter 42 years and more than three-dozen films, Werner Herzog knows a thing or two about obsessive characters, from Fitzcarraldo to Grizzly Man. Fiction or documentary, the guy understands crazy. Which makes him possibly the perfect filmmaker to entertain us with the story of an actor who, after preparing to play the matricidal Orestes on the stage, kills his own mother with a sword. With executive producer David Lynch clearly an inspiration, Herzog creates a bizarre, quizzical work that’s energized by a cast and script that defy predictability — and deal enough Lynchian weirdness to earn its laughs.

This is the first project of the Lynch-Herzog partnership, an attempt to spend less money (buck the convention of $30-40 million budgets, as Herzog explains) and hire the best possible acting talent. Their efforts for the latter are impressive for My Son, with a selection of talent that would make John Waters proud, a diverse cast who are no strangers to teetering near the edge. Michael Shannon, in the lead role of troubled Brad McCullum, proves he can play nutty with real depth, avoiding an easy rerun of his Oscar-nominated turn in Revolutionary Road. He still possesses the imposing volatility displayed in that film, but brings a whole scope of emotion to it here. He’s a man-child with ideals, pain, and ambition, and he’s clearly lost.

So why are we laughing at him? Thank Herzog and co-screenwriter Herbert Golder (an AD and archivist on previous Herzog films) for a script that demands Shannon be stunningly deadpan when explaining that he’s cried for so long, but only out of one eye. Or when showing up to a hospital and demanding to see “the sick, in general,” wanting to buy them pillows. Or out at his uncle’s ostrich farm, where an ornery bird eats Udo Kier’s eyeglasses. And yes, there’s a dwarf in there too.

Chloe Sevigny and Michael Shannon in My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done?

If the twisted setpieces and dislodged dialogue bear a striking resemblance to a Lynch original, I’m sure it’s no accident. Everybody gets the mood, from Willem Dafoe as the detective on the case to Chloe Sevigny as Brad’s confused girlfriend. Both actors smartly add a thin layer of artifice to their characters, with Sevigny teasing just enough humanity to make us care about her plight. She puts up with her guy’s mama complex with a grin — especially when mom, Sevigny’s Big Love co-star Grace Zabriskie, serves black Jell-O — but when an angry Brad intimidates her, she goes from hesitant to fearful. As do we. Managing that kind of transition is a subtle and overlooked talent. As is Sevigny.

There’s excitement in the unconventional, but there’s also a weight beyond Herzog’s strange approach, perhaps a sympathetic mental glimpse into Brad’s unstable world. Herzog’s mastery of film language keeps us both on edge and in the game; the film gently stomps on the cop genre and the flashback device, but still uses them in conventional ways. It makes My Son My Son accessible and familiar, but also frayed and freaky at the edges. And that’s a serious accomplishment. Okay, just semi-serious.

My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done? DVD Special Features
:: The DVD includes interviews with the filmmakers, and director Ramin Bahrani’s short Plastic Bag, which stars Herzog as the voice of the title character. Yes, a plastic bag. Hey, I loved his narration in Encounters at the End of the World.

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