My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done * *

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Director: Werner Herzog.
Screenplay: Werner Herzog, Herbert Golder.
Starring: Michael Shannon, Willem Dafoe, Chloe Sevigny, Udo Kier, Michael Pena, Grace Zabriskie, Irma P. Hall, Loretta Devine, Brad Dourif.

Sometimes a film comes along that although it hasn’t received a wide release or even a reasonable marketing campaign, it can capture your attention by the very people involved. This has prestigious director Werner Herzog; the go-to-man for troubled souls Michael Shannon; a host of talented supporting roles including the always reliable Willem Dafoe and it’s executive-produced by surreal transcendentalist David Lynch. I thought it’s lack of attention was maybe because the film was a stinker or maybe it was just a cult classic waiting to be discovered. Now that I know, I’d unfortunately put the film’s relative obscurity in the former category.

Brad McCullum (Michael Shannon) is a strange young man living in San Diego. One day, unexpectedly, he kills his mother with a sword and locks himself away in his home, claiming to have hostages. Detectives Havenhurst (Willem Dafoe) and Vargas (Michael Pena) arrive on the scene to get to the bottom of Brad’s seemingly sudden act of lunacy.

As this film opens it’s apparent, early on, that it’s going to go in a different direction. The use of music is eerie and the behaviour of the characters very off-key but then that’s entirely expected when David Lynch’s name appears on the opening credits. It even has a few of Lynch’s regular cast members in Dafoe, Brad Dourif and Grace Zabriskie but the most apparent thing that separates this from Lynch’s efforts is the absence of haunting composer Angelo Badalamenti. Without him, it’s just not the same. There are several moments to be admired and those moments are mainly fashioned with a Lynchian wierdness but it’s an ability that Herzog just can’t get a handle on here. Even though Lynch is weird, he is never boring but Herzog certainly comes across this way. Despite it’s intriguing atmosphere and sense of mystery, I found myself losing interest and losing it rapidly. The performances – as expected – are great and Michael Shannon adds another intense and off-beat character to his résumé but the tone and poor script let down any impressive work delivered onscreen. In fact, if it wasn’t for the reliable cast, I’d rate this even lower than I have. As an exploration of mental health culminating into Greek tragedy, it’s ambitious but the sheer strangeness of it all just falls flat.
In the same year, Herzog released “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” which was an another exploration of one man’s insanity but as impressive as that was, he doesn’t achieve the same balance with this one. I always knew I was taking a chance going into this but I really didn’t expect it to be as bad as it turned out to be. I held onto the fact that this it may have been misunderstood but I was, sadly, mistaken.

As the old proverb goes… ‘too many cooks spoil the broth‘; this might have worked better had either Lynch or, especially, Herzog had a clearer idea of what they were delivering. On this occasion I’ll be changing Werner’s name to ‘Herz-slog’. What he was formulating, I was receiving on a badly tuned frequency.

Mark Walker

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16 Responses to “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done * *”

  1. I saw this a few years back due to my love of Herzog and Shannon…and left away totally nonplussed at best. It’s a shame too, the concept is sharp, the execution is a bit dull. Nice review!

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    • I was onto this for similar reasons Andy. I love most things that Lynch is involved in and I’ll always watch Shannon but this was a very sad misfire. Considering the talent involved I was very disappointed.

      I’ll have another Shannon movie getting posted tomorrow – “Shotgun Stories”.

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  2. Never heard of this one, but I would have expected much better from Herzog, Shannon, Dafoe, etc. That’s too bad. Great review, Mark, appreciate the heads up on this.

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  3. This film sounds really disturbing. I read a review of it a while back and I don’t know if I could handle it w/ the mother-killing thing, as my mom died when I was only 16. That said, sounds like Shannon gave a tremendous performance. He’s definitely an actor to watch out for and glad to see he’s getting more juicy roles now.

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    • It’s not a violent film at all Ruth. You don’t actually see the act itself. Most of the film is set during the aftermath of the event and although the film sounds disturbing, it’s actually more weird than anything. Shannon does deliver another great performance though. I’ve really taken to him of late.

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      • Oh I see, but still the idea is still hard to grapple with. Glad they chose not to show the act, that would’ve been too much. I might check it out, yeah Shannon certainly is a ‘best kept secret’ of sort as he’s been acting for a while but only recently that he got noticed.

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      • Can you believe that he was in Groundhog Day? It just doesn’t seem the type of film you’d see him part of and he’s still fairly young as well. He’s a great actor.

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      • What?? Which role did he play?? I LOVE Groundhog Day. Was he one of the reporters working with Andie McDowell’s character??

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      • He was one half of the young couple that Bill Murray helps out and they decide to get married. It’s a brief role but he’s there.

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  4. Great review. I hadn’t heard of this one before but the names involved certainly make it sound interesting (too bad it wasn’t). You said it feels a tiny bit Lynchian, which can be understood since he produced it, but many things about it make me think Lars Von Trier (would you say he’s an influence?) Oh, and don’t you think Michael Peña must be tired of playing cops? Hahaha

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    • Thanks Fernando. I wouldn’t say it has that full on extreme approach that Von Trier has a tendency for but it does have Udo Kier who has appeared in so many Von Trier movies but thats probably as far as I’d go with the comparison. It could be doing with some of his talent though. ;-)

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  5. Great review but I’m disappointed it’s not good, I was actually going to see this one as I love Shannon….I guess I should see Bug instead, I heard good things about this one.

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