My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/24/10 06:21:26

"A more approachable look at insanity than one might expect."
5 stars (Awesome)

The first two credits to appear on the screen in "My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done" are "David Lynch Presents" and "A Film By Werner Herzog". If you recognize the names, you know that means there's weirdness ahead. Now, to be fair, Lynch didn't do anything but hook Herzog and company up with some money, but perhaps he did so in part because he saw some reflection of his own brand of madness in Herzog's.

It starts conventionally-but-oddly enough: Detectives Havenhurst (Willem Dafoe) and Vargas (Michael Peņa) are driving around San Diego when they receive an 1144 call - 1144 meaning someone is extremely dead. It's an old woman, slain with a sword in her neighbor's house. The obvious suspect is her son Brad McCullum (Michael Shannon), and he's holed up in their house with two hostages. Soon his fiancee Ingrid (Chloe Sevigny) shows up, repeating the common refrain that Brad hasn't been the same since he got back from Peru, but the stories she and theater director Lee Meyers (Udo Kier) tell indicate "not the same" is severely understating the case.

Yes, Herzog (with co-writer Herbert Golder) is once again casting his eye on madness, but it's not the descent being chronicled here - though the scenes in Peru certainly result in him reaching a breaking point. This film is about the lines between eccentricity, treatable mental illness, and insanity. Much is told in flashback, sometimes prompted by questions asked of Ingrid, Lee, and the witnesses to Mrs. McCullum's murder, sometimes not; those scenes come together to form a vivid picture of a complete breakdown, albeit one where the audience can perhaps understand why the other characters might not see it coming.

Michael Shannon does a fine job with that. Brad seems harmless enough when we first see him, both in the present and the past, although never "normal". As things progress, though, Shannon does well in making us see how Brad's behavior is filled with giant warning signs in retrospect, but might be discounted at the time, because he's good at presenting Brad as off without overshadowing the other broadly played characters. One example of that is his great, nervous chemistry with Grace Zabriskie.

Zabriskie plays Brad's mother, and she does excellent work in capturing the sort of woman able to dominate through fragility; even after stripping away the flamingo motif Herzog and company have decorated her house with, there's something about her that's nearly as unnerving as her son. Chloe Sevigny is interesting as the other woman in Brad's life; she presents Ingrid as a woman of some intelligence who, perhaps, fell in love with Brad before things started going bad and now can't bring herself to admit he's not the same person. Brad Dourif steals a couple scenes as Brad's Uncle Ted, and I quite liked Dafoe and Peņa as the responding detectives - though their job is basically to tie the flashbacks together, the actors make them memorable characters.

There's very little about "My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done" that isn't memorable; Herzog and company find fascinating shots in the architecture of Calgary, sketch off-kilter and unnerving characters, and manage to make a good police film in between. It's not quite the full-on barrage of weirdness that one might expect (or fear) from a project with both Lynch's and Herzog's names, but it's a very fine example of both the barely-submerged strangeness of the former the towering madness of the latter.

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