My son My son what have ye done – Lynch and Herzog team up.
“I mean I’m not going to take your vitamin pills, I’m not going to drink your herbal tea, I’m not going to the sweat lodge with a hundred-and-eight year-old Native American who reads Hustler magazines and smokes cool cigarettes. I’m not going to discover my boundaries; I am going to stunt my inner growth and I think I shall become a Muslim-call me Faruch.”
My Son My Son, What have Ye Done is what happens when Werner Herzog and David Lynch get together and produce a love child. Given the reputation each of these film makers have for oddities, you’d think this film would be a bit stranger. Or maybe it’s exactly strange enough? It has the usual mix of odd Herzog references that may or may not mean something – we’re never quite sure – and that Lynchian “am I in a dream or is this real” feeling for much of the film. It’s loosely based on a true story of one Mark Yavorsky an amateur actor who became so unhinged by his role in Sophocles’s Electra that he tried to kill his mother with a samurai sword. Michael Shannon plays the Yavorsky figure (here renamed Brad McCullum) as a shambling shaman with a 1,000-yard stare. Chloë Sevigny co-stars as his passive fiancée, while Willem Dafoe completes the trio as the pensive cop who lays siege to Brad’s humdrum suburban house. Nobody, least of all the cop, seems quite sure what’s going on. “I don’t mean to alarm you, Miss, but it’s all a little strange,” Dafoe tells Sevigny in a hushed monotone. “He claims his name is Farouk. He shouts about God and he keeps tossing oatmeal at us. It’s a little confusing.”
And that’s really the main theme here – it’s all a little confusing. But when does Herzog make it clear or easy for anyone? For some this is the underlying theme of his brilliance, and for others it’s a thinly disguised problem of simply writing cheques you can’t cash. I tend to distrust Herzog’s “ambiguity” – but then I’m a lover of French New Wave and Herzog is not. (or if he is it’s not an influence unless it’s an anti-influence)
This film is depicting the decent into madness of Brad who sort of snapped at a white water rafting trip, came home and started to act in a play about killing his mother and then decided to really do it. The play and its double meaning is introduced way too late in the film, which is a shame because it’s a nice idea. This focus on the white water rafting trip is a bit of a problem because it is really nothing more than a Herzog distraction that we aren’t 100% sure if it’s a game he plays or a mistake he’s made. The moment just isn’t compelling enough to toss someone over the edge. This exaggerates as much as it seduces and I guess that is part of the Herzog (anti)charm. Xan Brooks in his review in The Guardian sums it up well: The experience is rather like watching a low-rent TV movie while dosed up on heavy medication. One starts fixating on seemingly throwaway details or detecting a turbulent poetry in the most hackneyed lines of dialogue.
There is a weird Lynchian moment (actually I have read both that Lynch had a lot to do with this and also that he had almost nothing to do with this film) when we go back in time to see Brad visit his nasty-piece-of-work uncle (Brad Dourif) who runs a Ostreich farm (!) and we have our patented Herzog dwarf moment here. The other strong Lynchian feel comes through the character of Brad’s mother herself – the sad Mrs McCullum (Grace Zabriskie) who stares into the abyss between her and her son in the hope that desperation will create a bridge. Interestingly it is not till she is facing her death at his hand that she gains a level head and is able to see things rationally. This is a genuinely creepy role – At one stage, Herzog has Zabriskie rise from the dinner table, turn towards the camera and then hold her position for half a minute or more. Her limbs tremble and her gaze is beseeching. It’s a wonderfully odd moment and definitely underscores the horrors that will eventuate between her and her son.
The house where the sad and sorry relationship between Bad and his mother and then Zoe and Brad and his mother takes place is wonderfully strange with its obsession with kitsch flamingoes that Brad calls his eagles in drag – eagles mean freedom, and I guess drag is a kind of freedom… no wait it’s a trap…. no wait it’s freedom! Well, you get the idea. The film is like this, with a weird trip south of the border where Brad’s behaviour is completely insane and really only attracts a sideways glance from his girlfriend. Key moments are underplayed and irrelevant moments given the weight and context of the essential so that we’re never quite sure where we are. In amongst all of this the film will wander down the path of the black comedy. So the viewer may even find themselves laughing at the oddest moments.
In the end, however, the primary message is that god is in the porridge and I’m just not convinced that works.