My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done?
I made a really crap film Ma’…
It happens to us all. Sometimes, despite yourself, you get involved in something you just don’t want to do. You may be at a barbeque or maybe a dinner party. You’ve had a few drinks. You’re in a good mood, feeling kinda warm and fuzzy towards the world. You’re chatting, flirting, circulating. You are the life and soul of the party. Then you wake up the next day and realise you’ve agreed to go spend a week in a narrow boat with the in-laws. In Norfolk. Or you’ve agreed to take part in an am-dram production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Or run 10k in aid of deaf xylophonists. Or any one of the thousands of other bad ideas you get roped into when your judgement is open to question.
I like to think that’s how bonkers Bavarian genius Werner Herzog ended up making a film as bad as My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done? I like to think he was at a barbeque at Martian Jimmy Stewart-impersonator David Lynch’s house, he had that one blond ale too many and before he knew what was happening he was nodding enthusiastically and saying “Yeah Dave, a movie about a flamingo-bothering matricidal maniac is exactly the way to follow working with Nicholas Cage. And it’d be super-duper if you produced it,” That’s how I like to think My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done? came about. Thinking about it any other way means that the visionary artist who gave us Aguirre, Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, the man who gave us the perversely uplifting spectacle of a suicidal penguin (Encounters at the End of the World), who conducted an interview with a bequiffed, humourless, muppet (Mark Kermode) after randomly being shot in the stomach, the man who ate his own shoe to prove a point (Les Blank’s Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe), deliberately set out to make a film where the high point is an ostrich stealing Udo Kier’s glasses and eating them.
After nutty Mummy’s boy Brad (bug-eyed loon du jour Michael Shannon) runs his annoying Mom (bug-eyed loon Grace Zabriskie) through with a sabre, it’s up to two stereotypical cops (bug-eyed loon Wilem Dafoe and Michael Pena) to talk the killer, who’s holed up at home with a shotgun and some hostages, into surrendering without further bloodshed. As Brad (who hasn’t been quite right since a white-water rafting holiday in Peru) thinks the guy on the Quaker Oats box is God and insists on Dafoe calling him Farouk, this might prove something of a tall order. Enlisting Brad’s fiancé (professional constipation-face Chloë Sevigny) and his drama coach (bug-eyed loon Udo Kier), Dafoe tries to figure out what drove Brad to murder his mother and just who he’s taken hostage. Cue flashbacks to raging South American rivers, Shannon’s increasingly method identification with the matricidal Orestes, ostrich farming racists (bug-eyed loon Brad Dourif) and a dwarf in a tuxedo, a cameo from Verne Troyer for no other reason I can fathom than both Werner and Executive Producer Lynch like dwarves.
Base on a rather tragic true story, the wilfully obtuse My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done? at times feels like an elaborate in-joke, constantly referencing the earlier work of both Lynch and Herzog (has there been this much conspicuous coffee consumption since the heyday of Twin Peaks?) with its oddball casting (Zabriskie, Dourif, Dafoe and Kier), quirky characters and episodic feel. At other times the movie feels like an inept parody of a murder mystery as an obviously bored Herzog pays lip service to the conventions of the police procedural while waiting for the chance to shoehorn in a couple of scenes shot in his beloved jungle. With the exception of Sevigny (who has either perfected her “smell the fart” acting face or is still traumatised by her encounter with Vincent Gallo’s cheesy Wotsit on The Brown Bunny), the cast chews the scenery like it was Kobe beef with baggy-faced Shannon the worst offender. It’s a worrying omen for any film when the most restrained, subtle performance on show is delivered by the usually demented Udo Kier.
Indifferently shot and completely devoid of dramatic tension, the central mystery of My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done? isn’t why Brad stabbed his mother but how the film came to be made. Who financed it? Surely just the pitch “Werner Herzog and David Lynch…ON THE SAME FILM” should have sent most halfway sane financiers scurrying for the hills. Perhaps Herzog, who famously once worked with a cast who were in a hypnotic trance (Heart of Glass), hypnotised the money men into stumping up the cash. Ultimately, My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done? feels more like a chore than a film, something to be endured until someone in Hollywood is crazy enough to give Werner the money to go do a movie he wants to do. Until then avoid My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done? There’s more poetry in that single shot of Encounters at the End of the World‘s suicidal penguin, strutting alone into the snowy Antartic interior than there is in 91 interminable minutes of My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done?
Willem Dafoe, Michael Shannon, Chloë Sevigny, Udo Kier, Michael Pena, Grace Zabriskie, Brad Dourif
Werner Herzog & Herbert Golder