My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

My Son My Son What Have Ye Done
"This is brilliant."

Brad McCullum has killed his mother. He killed her with a sword, in a neighbour's house. He is, let us be clear about this, unwell. Without getting inside his head we cannot know why, we can only know how. We cannot follow the process that led him to it, but we can follow the footsteps. This is a film made of breadcrumbs, hints, flashbacks and memories. This is brilliant.

Let's start with the production - David Lynch was involved. Willem Dafoe gives an impeccable performance as a wise, even wizened, homicide detective. His calm demeanour is a contrast to the television-influenced plans of his colleague, played by Michael Peña. We meet detectives Havenhurst and Vargas as an anecdote is recounted. It is brought to an end by a radio call. "What's an 11-44?" asks the younger Vargas (Peña) - "It's like somebody's dead. Very much dead."

Copy picture

The victim is Grace Zabriskie, Mrs McCullum, a matriarch whose apron-strings wrap tight around young Brad. Michael Shannon is her son. Both are, well, it is hard to explain - they are both in this, a Werner Herzog film. Brad hasn't been the same since a trip to Peru - "you don't go kayaking in the rainy season". Brad hasn't been the same since he was cast in Orestia - Sophocles would have him kill his mother. Brad hasn't been the same since he got the sword from Uncle Ted.

Ted is Brad Dourif. His ostrich ranch is a hallucinatory episode in a film on the verges of sanity. He tells tales of Willard, a chicken of no small scale. He is concerned by his nephew's foray into acting. He recounts, on the scene, a plan for an advertisement. He is disdainful towards the play's director, Udo Kier as a Los Angelene artistic visionary, a critical theorist, a concerned friend.

One of two - there is Brad's lover, partner, Ingrid, Chloe Sevigny making use of her alternative suburban experience to express her concern, and rightly so. A trip to Tijuana that is surreal, her recollections of Brad's tales from Peru. Landscapes lush and alien, Brad moving within them. Herzog plays with us - he uses a shot interrupted, even built around an airliner roaring along its flight path. What we're told is Calgary might be China. In the McCullum household flamingos step lightly, back and forth, their red eyes primordial, unfathomable.

The locations, the set-dressing, the play within, "the perfect stage for a cosmic melodrama", the sword, the birds, Ernst Reijseger's music recorded live without processing in a Lutheran church, the "tunnel of time", Brad eating his jello, Razzle Dazzle, an apology about coffee, crying only from one eye; action moving backwards, a visit to the neighbours, a basketball in a tree, "I want to visit the sick in general", the face on the Puritan-brand oatmeal, a freight train rolling across the screen, a hand clutching an embroidered pillow. It can be described, but it cannot be understood, it can only be seen, and reacted to. A picture of a reflection of the world through a distorting lens, an accurate portrayal of inaccuracy.

We get a picture of Brad that is neither whole nor incomplete. Nothing is wasted, everything has import, it all fits, folds, fulfils. Herzog collaborator Herbert Golder helps here with the script, but with that "inspired by a true story", the staring eyes from the poster recalling Kinski's intensity, can anyone know how much, and where? Who are we to argue?

The presence of a forensic psychologist in the credits speaks to his attempts to make this credible, but it doesn't matter. It feels right, insofar as anything Herzog puts on screen feels right - it might not be fact, but it's truth. Even in his documentaries, sometimes the closest we get to the real is that the thing we are seeing happen in front of his character happened in front of his camera. That's enough - where his camera points, audiences will, should, follow. His work is almost a genre to itself, like Lynch, as the flamingos might suggest like Waters, like nothing else. It is note perfect, slipping, sliding towards itself. It is hard not to become strident - see it.

Reviewed on: 24 Jun 2010
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Two detectives try to work out how a young man came to kill his mother with a sword.
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Read more My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? reviews:

James Gracey ****

Director: Werner Herzog

Writer: Herbert Golder, Werner Herzog

Starring: Willem Dafoe, Brad Dourif, Chloë Sevigny, Michael Peña, Michael Shannon, Loretta Devine, Udo Kier, Grace Zabriskie, Braden Lynch, Irma P. Hall, James C. Burns, Gabriel Pimentel, Candice Coke, Noel Arthur, Brian Sounalath

Year: 2009

Runtime: 93 minutes

Country: US, Germany


EIFF 2010

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