My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? (2010)

Werner Herzog and David Lynch team up to synthesize jarring, bizarre and weird into something that vaguely resembles a film. While the combination might seem odd, what unifies the two creative forces is their shared obsession with madness. For Lynch, the madness is in the postmodern, disjointed narratives he constructs while for Herzog the madness is in the simple drive of human nature.

Werner Herzog takes the director’s chair, which is a good thing because the film is inspired by a real murder and Herzog is a little more down to earth than Lynch. What’s that, a simple bullet wound? Can’t be bothered with it. There are more important things in life. Lynch is a producer, which just could be a recognizable name to put on the box, but it’s clear that he had a mark on the creative process of the film.

Brad McCullum (Michael Shannon) is a confusing man, often muttering nonsense and obsessing over the simplest nonsense. He’s not well adjusted to the real world, which makes him bit of a special case for Detective Hank Harvenhurst (Willem Dafoe) who is sent in to arrested him after he becomes the prime suspect in his mother’s murder.

The film then becomes a series of moments recounted by Brad’s fiancée, Ingrid (Chloë Sevigny) and friend, Lee Meyers (Udo Kier) intercut with the cops trying to find a way for Brad to give up the two hostages he’s taken inside his home. The result is a film that combines the bizarre, obsessive character drive with the scatterbrained, confusing narrative in order to synthesize a film both exploring madness while being a bit maddening.

The film indulges Brad in his madness. It would be easy to cast aside Brad’s view of the world as madness, but there’s something about the way the film captures this, a softness and sympathy, that almost suggests that Brad is not so much a madman as someone compelled by a force outside the understanding of human knowledge.

In the hands of a lesser actor, it might all implode, but Michael Shannon once again proves that he’s one of the finest actors in the business. He could have handled this character as a joke, as something to just have fun with, but he embraces the role and gives it a humanity and warmth that’s surprising. He has enough softness and sadness to him to make him inviting. But when the obsession strikes, he’s frighteningly intense, something sinister seething behind each word.

Perhaps the only disappointing element is the clear lack of gratuitous nature shots. Herzog is clearly at his best when he’s shooting close-ups of butterflies or hundreds of topless African women on the battlefield. This film is mostly urban fare although he finds a way to slip in some nature via the farm own by Brad’s uncle played by the fantastic Brad Dourif. Otherwise, the tone and setting smacks a lot of Lynch.

For fans of Herzog only, it might be a bit disappointing that this seems more of a Lynch endeavor even though it’s a Herzog helmed film. However, it’s interesting to see Herzog’s take on the whole Lynch aesthetic. Plus, between the two of them, they reach a level of madness that neither one could attain apart. For many, it might make these two already frustrating directors even more infuriating. All I can say is embrace the madness. Razzle them. Dazzle them.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing