The first thing that catches your attention about this film is the collaboration of two of the most notable auteur filmmakers working today: David Lynch as executive producer, and Werner Herzog who co-wrote and directs. Neither man needs an introduction with careers that span over forty years with unique brands of filmmaking that have garnered both critical acclaim and box office success. Herzog is renowned for his signature aesthetic and vehement confrontation with the boundaries of conventional cinema, often blurring the line between the fictional and the factual. Lynch is a surrealist with his own specificities and employs dream imagery with disturbing psychological themes to explore eccentric characters and unusual scenarios. The second thing that catches your attention is that the film is based on the true story of a troubled San Diego man who acted out a Sophocles play in his mind and killed his mother with a sword.
It is understood that Werner Herzog is an artful filmmaker, a man full of ideas and a sheer joy for exploration and discovery. It is also clear that Herzog employs a specific kind of logic and interpretation of character and story that is frequently unusual and at times challenging for the everyday moviegoers. The actual story of the disturbed San Diego man is only a rough sketch for My Son My Son What Have Ye Done (2009) with Herzog resorting to improvisation, spontaneity, and wackiness to get inside the head of the main character. What starts like a story on the five o’clock news and perhaps the outline for a serious character study, quickly becomes a quirky, perhaps myopic portrait of madness personified. What is important to understand about a Herzog film, in this case a film in the Lynchian-Herzogian universe, is that there are no ground rules or certainties and time is better thought of in terms relative to space than plot. The result is a nonsensical, sensory-deprived story with pointless plot points and tirades that go nowhere on purpose with literal and figurative metaphors strewn like lawn furniture in the strangest places. But for all the esoteric things going on, that in and of themselves might be interesting, the oddball factor falls flat and the experience is devoid of even a hint of joy. Let’s call this movie a town where normal never arrives or for that matter ever existed at all. Let’s call this bizarre town, not to be confused with barter-town; that’s another movie.
My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done plays like one long, ninety-three minute explanation of a series of events that may or may not have really happened. Someone says, “I think some of this actually happened” but you only hear part of it and the rest dissipates into thin air. While the film is brimming with stars – Michael Shannon (Runaways, Reservation Road) Chloe Sevigny (Brown Bunny, Dogville) Willem Dafoe (Antichrist, Platoon) Brad Dourif (The Lord of the Rings, Dune) and Michael Pena (Shooter, World Trade Center, Crash) it is so idiosyncratic as to make all but the most die-hard fans of absurdest cinema disappointed. The ensuing maelstrom is a film that is not enough of either director or perhaps too much of the mix – some recipes, especially in baking, require precise measurements and if this film were a bundt cake it would look more like a soggy, inedible donut.
The premise serves only as a rough sketch, at best – a recount of the events of a hostage situation followed by said event and the happenings thereafter. Nothing new there, we all know non-linear storytelling and to be honest it is beginning to bore. The troubles begin almost immediately though first we are forced to sit through a lengthy, derivative “cop story” from Defoe who delivers it like a pizza, cold and sans those dried parmesan packets. Michael Pena appears lost in the zone that cop partners maybe go into when their other half drones on too long about the ‘good old days’ when police brutality didn’t get filmed on $100 dollar cell phone cameras. Eventually we arrive at a suburban crime scene where Brad McCallum (Michael Shannon) has killed his mother with a samurai sword and taken two hostages. After some surprise guests arrive at the crime scene, the story moves through a series of flashbacks so we can learn about McCallum’s “issues” and why he has gone off the track. If you ask me, the whole production went off the track in pre-production only no one told the filmmakers, the cast, or the crew. Someone could have spoken up. Anyone, really.
I must admit I might not be the Lynch/Herzog aficionado I thought I was after watching this film but then again with veterans of their stature with both memorable and forgettable films behind them, I shouldn’t be as surprised as I am that this film by all rights will not appeal to a broad audience. Whereas some have marveled at the sheer absurdity and banal treatment of the story with purposefully morose and stock pot characters, and others have held the script in awe while missing every possible reason to hate it – including the fact that allegedly the story is based on true events – I am not of that opinion.