My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done

Director    Werner Herzog
Starring    Willem Dafoe, Michael Shannon, Udo Kier, Brad Dourif, Chloë Sevigny, Michael Peña, Loretta Devine
Release    11 DEC 2009 (US) 10 SEP (UK)    Certificate 15
4 stars


20th September 2010

Since biblical times, there has been talk of this partnership. Revelations 7:9 describes how cinema's foremost madmen will join together in order to create a film so utterly bonkers that the world will come to a halt; the four horsemen will collect tickets and sell popcorn.

Fortunately, it seems we are safe for now; Werner Herzog (co-writer and director) and David Lynch (executive producer) have seen fit to be benevolent, and in a similar way to The Human Centipede existing only to desensitize us to the prospect of a lot of people sewn together, with My Son, My Son, they (if the scriptures are true) are just paving the way for the madness' to come.

[gallery]Apparently based on a true story, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done sees Werner Herzog return with his second police drama this year, after the excellent Bad Lieutenant. The film follows Detective Frank Havenhurst (Willem Dafoe) as he arrives at the scene of an old woman's murder, which quickly escalates into a siege when the murderer, Brad McCullum (Michael Shannon), holes himself up with a shotgun and two hostages in the house across the street. The film is essentially a detective story in reverse; at the outset we are presented with a murderer and a victim and we work our way into McCullum's past through the memories of McCullum's fiancé (Chloe Sevigny) and friend/director (Udo Kier).

It is Dafoe's detective that holds the film together and, perhaps more importantly, keeps the film and audience anchored in a believable place. His straight and understated performance roots the film in a space we can understand; when his character faces the insanity that McCullum and his past deliver, Dafoe brings an air of mundanity to such baffling tasks as measuring the distance of coffee cups from the walls of the crime scene, and inspecting the tube of Quaker Oats that the McCullum believes to be God.

Shannon delivers an extraordinary performance as Brad McCullum, the man who has killed his mother with the sword he has become obsessed with after using it on stage. He mumbles and rants as a man adrift in a world that he is no longer a part of. As we're exposed to his past via the memories of his friend and fiancé, we discover what lies behind McCullum's calm madness; his guilt, his Oedipal relationship with his mother, his desire to be a preacher (for God, who resides in the pantry) and his unswerving desire to please and follow the instruction of the voice in his head. Despite his madness, we can only feel sympathy for him, no matter his crime.

Special mentions must also be given to Brad Dourif, who plays McCullum's sinister, sword-owning, ostrich-farming Uncle Ted, a grizzled redneck who attacks McCullum's life choices and gives him his murder weapon. Udo Kier also provides a humorously foreboding presence as McCullum's friend and theatrical director Lee Meyers, delivering dialogue in an almost comical German accent, sounding conspicuously like the Pope.
The film is aesthetically beautiful and bizarre. Perhaps most extraordinary is the design of McCullum's mothers house, which is pale pink and entirely dictated by his mothers love of flamingos. The cinematography is also unique in its execution; a number of times the actors stop and turn to camera, freezing in positions that turn the screen into scenes reminiscent of American Gothic.

The 'reptile-cam' style which was so prevalent in Bad Lieutenant also makes a re-appearance, but this time the camera is set unnervingly close to the faces of Tibetans in a market for a fabulously purposeless amount of time.

It is difficult to pick through the directorial tropes, bizarre characters and extraordinary dialogue to uncover the exact quality of the film that lies beneath. Firstly, it is an astounding piece of art, bearing testament to the skill and style of the director and executive producer, but it is also a wonderful film. Herzog manages to neatly constrain his characteristic eccentricities in order to give McCullum's mental decline the necessary level of madness and dark humour.

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