My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?


Reviewed by: James Gracey

My Son My Son What Have Ye Done
"Events are lent an almost reverend gravitas thanks to the astoundingly atmospheric score courtesy of acclaimed cellist Ernst Reijseger."

Opening with the words ‘David Lynch presents a film by Werner Herzog’; words that automatically instilled fluttering in this particular writer’s heart, My Son My Son is a film that instantly suggests boundless possibilities, high expectations and the promise of something memorable, provocative and left of centre. The question is, does it live up to the promise? Of course it does. However, in true Lynch/Herzog fashion, it does so in unexpected ways that manage to surprise and delight.

Inspired by the true story of Mark Yavorsky, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done stars Michael Shannon as Brad Macallum, an aspiring actor who, mirroring events in a Greek tragedy in which he is performing, stabs his mother to death with a 3-foot antique sabre. He then barricades himself into a house across the street, while Detective Havenhurst (Dafoe) attempts to communicate with him. Events leading up to the murder are relayed through the accounts of Brad’s fiancée, Ingrid (Sevigny) and his theatrical director Lee (Kier), who arrive at the scene at Brad’s request. Structurally speaking the film is quite conventional in comparison with earlier offerings from both filmmakers. A series of flashbacks, prompted by various characters’ recalling strange events leading up the ghastly murder, unfold in tranquil San Diego suburbs, majestic Peruvian landscapes and an ostrich farm in an unexceptional Mexican border town. The police procedural aspects of the story echo Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant – indeed this film works well as a companion piece to that one, as both chart the bizarre circumstances in which men begin the gradual descent into despair and mental disintegration because they finds themselves at odds with the wider world.

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Indeed, the premise of a quiet suburban community shattered by unthinkable acts of violence recalls Lynch’s own masterpieces Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. This being a Herzog/Lynch collaboration though, things aren’t as clear cut as someone simply going insane, and Herzog attempts to convey a picture of a character who is not so much insane, as he is affected and confused by the insanity of the world around him. The tone of the film is inevitably dark, though Herzog liberally sprinkles a thoroughly absurd sense of humour that adds to the offbeat mood. Events are lent an almost reverend gravitas thanks to the astoundingly atmospheric score courtesy of acclaimed cellist Ernst Reijseger. Cutting through the weirdness, the film’s backbone consists of several strong performances from the very reliable Shannon, Defoe and Zabriskie. Shannon imbues Brad with a strangely ethereal innocence, and never resorts to histrionics, while Zabriskie dusts off her Sarah Palmer guise, effortlessly entwining eerie malice with startling pathos, as a lonely woman who has an unhealthy attachment to and dependence on her son.

Herzog is no stranger to exploring the dynamics of art imitating life imitating art. The play within the film is the Greek tragedy Orestes, in which a son slays his mother in revenge for the death of his father. The grim events in Orestes mirror the story in the film (which itself mirrors real events) and also recall the cursed film from Lynch’s meandering behemoth Inland Empire, Betty’s freefalling career in Mulholland Drive and the various soap operas glimpsed on TVs throughout Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet; all of which comment on the notion of art imitating life imitating art.

The basic story of My Son My Son could have been the subject of any under siege/hostage movie in which a disillusioned young man goes insane and poses a threat to wider society. In the hands of Herzog though, it becomes an existentialist parable that forces the audience to observe their world from a different angle, as he teases sinister meaning and unexpected threat from the banal everyday.

Reviewed on: 07 Oct 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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Andrew Robertson *****

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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