My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? (Werner Herzog, 2009)
I have spent years singing Werner Herzog’s praises every time I see one of his movies. I think the last of his movies I have less than an enthusiastic review to was The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser, and I saw that, what, ten years ago? (Actually, I looked it up—eight years ago, in August of 2005.) Man, I even defended, and strongly, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. But every streak must come to an end, and the architect of this one’s demise is the 2009 film My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?. (For the record: over the past ten years, I have seen nine Herzog films. This is the first to which I have given a below-average review.)
Supposedly based on a true story, the film tells us the tale of Brad Macallam (Michael Shannon, who like most of the cast stayed on with Herzog after BL:PoCNO wrapped to make this one), a man who seems to have gone insane during a recent trip to South America, and who just killed his mother (Twin Peaks‘ Grace Zabriskie) with a sword, taking the whole Stanislavsky thing a little too far (he’s playing Orestes in a community-theater play). The bulk of the film is told in flashback, as detectives Havenhurst (Antichrist‘s Willem Dafoe) and Vargas (End of Watch‘s Michael Pena) try to piece together the events leading up to the murder by interviewing neighbors and tracking Brad, who left the scene before anyone realized he was the perp.
I have to admit, I’m kind of amused by the meta level of “Brad’s acting drives him nuts” contrasted with Willem Dafoe’s portrayal of Max Schreck in Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire, in which Murnau (John Malkovich) tries to convince the cast that Schreck (who, in the film, really IS a vampire) never appears out of character because he’s a Stanislavsky devotee. And the scenery in this flick? Oh, man. I have a tendency to lust after distinctive houses in movies. (That awful 1999 remake of The Haunting? Its only saving grace was the house.) But the movie itself feels soulless to me. Maybe it’s Michael Shannon’s flat affect, which I’m sure was intentional—Shannon is far too good an actor not to have to work at coming off this horribly, and Herzog is exceptional at getting actors to do exactly what he wants them to do. (How else could he have worked so well with Klaus Kinski all those years?) It works for the character, and if that “based on a true story” gig has this running anywhere close to reality, it’s probably in the personality of the main character…but that ends up making for a ponderous movie with a desperately unlikable main character. Many folks who saw this movie found him fascinating, and I am willing to put this down to personal bias, but he just didn’t do it for me. Which is all the more frustrating because so much of this cast is comprised of people I adore—Dafoe, Shannon, Zabriskie, Brad Dourif, Loretta Devine, the list goes on. And yet…I just couldn’t find a way to grab onto this movie and hold. In my eyes, it was an exceptionally rare miss for Herzog. Your mileage may well vary. **