Tuesday, June 22, 2010

EIFF Premiere: "My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?" (2009)

It's not that Werner Herzog's "My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?" is necessarily bad, it's just a film that is forever impenetrable. Just look at the title, and you know there's no getting past that. The movie is produced by David Lynch's production company Absurda, and that's understandable as this latest work from Herzog resembles a lot of what interests Lynch: elements of the absurd, the unconventional, the horrific, and most notably, the exasperatingly dumbfounding.

The plot revolves around a police procedural, but it is fueled by clues that lead to nowhere and a suspect who has already been found. It's a story based on facts from a true event in 1979, but Herzog is less interested for his story to follow the facts and much more interested in aiming the story toward a Lynchian-friendly audience.

Willem Dafoe plays a detective who leads the group of police officers arriving on the scene of the crime. He tackles the assignment with straight-faced seriousness no matter how crazy the circumstances. The crime alone is crazy as it involves a man named Brad McCullum (Michael Shannon of "Revolutionary Road") who killed his mother (Grace Zabriskie) with a rusty antique sword that was used as a prop in a theater production where Brad was supposed to play the lead part, a production that, yes, is about a son who kills his mother. Brad takes refuge in his house with two hostages while the cops surround his place outside. As Brad communicates with the police, he literally becomes part of the house rattling the front blinds as he shouts and opening the garage door like a burping mouth to toss objects out like a radio and a can of oatmeal that rolls down the driveway in a brilliantly shot sequence.

When Brad's future wife, Ingrid (Chloe Sevigny), shows up along with the theater director, Lee Meyers (Udo Kier), a series of flashbacks is prompted, and they end up taking up the majority of the running time filling in the gaps of when Brad might have decided to murder his own mother. There's something about him having a revelation during a trip in Peru. Another memory is of a trip to an ostrich farm run by Uncle Ted (Brad Dourif), a scene that has no connection to anything relating back to the San Diego crime scene but is nonetheless strangely fascinating.

The film is filled with scenes and shots that evoke wonder and awe, but their connection to the narrative is nearly impossible to find. A moment with Brad and an escalator is magical, and any scene with the wonderful Grace Zabriskie (who appeared in Lynch's "Inland Empire") as Mrs. McCullum is astonishing. As Brad's mother, Zabriskie plays a woman who is so attached and loving to her son that you wouldn't think of her as evoking murder but maybe just annoyance. There is a moment where she hands Brad and Ingrid some refreshments and remains in the doorway waiting for their reaction. She stands for an uncomfortably long time shifting between two or three supernaturally eerie facial expressions and glances. A similar moment occurs during a long shot at the dinner table where Mrs. McCullum, Brad and Ingrid all stop moving and stare into the camera. What appears to be freeze frame is not as you can tell it's still real-time because the actors are shifting just ever so slightly, and this lasts for nearly a minute. What does it mean? Couldn't tell you, but I loved it anyway.

I can't say, though, that I loved "My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?" as a whole. I can't say I liked it, either. I liked Michael Shannon, though, who sure knows how to play insane. Apart from that, I can't say much about the film at all because I don't think any individual viewer has the rights to even begin contemplating what any of it means, and in the end, maybe that was Herzog and Lynch's intention. These two are the most interestingly unique and uncompromising filmmakers working today. While it could have been a match made in heaven, this jumbled experiment comes out being far too trapped inside the creators' heads. Maybe next time, guys.

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