'My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?' Review: Razzle Dazzle Them
Yes, we sure are an eccentric bunch here over at Kulture Shocked. One month we’re watching schlocky wrestler movies, the next we’re coming at you with artsy offerings from Werner Herzog! We like to keep readers and reviewers on their toes, and I, myself, wouldn’t have it any other way. So let’s dive right into this week’s film, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?
Based on a real-life murder, this 2009 thriller stars Willem Dafoe as Detective Hank Havenhurst called onto the scene of a police standoff with Brad McCullum (Michael Shannon), who has receded into his house with two hostages after stabbing his mother (Grace Zabriskie). Brad is an obviously disturbed and strange man, making any attempts to work him down a minefield of incongruities that can only be solved as Havenhurst unravels his rival’s equally unsettling past.
It’s strange for me to say, but this is my first outing with the work of Werner Herzog. When the theme was proposed, I could swear I had seen at least some of his films – Hell, I’ve been indoctrinated with Haneke and other oddball German directors for years. But apparently I’d only ever experienced him through the work of others, either as a reference or as a voice actor, so getting to sit down to one of his feature-length offerings was a whole new world for me.
Even with that in mind, many of the director’s tropes and quirks are on brilliant display in My Son, My Son. While the acting from every member of the cast is stellar, you have these strange bits of dialogue interspersed that are clearly written by a man with a vision that trumps the boundaries of realism. For instance, late in the film, there’s a scene where Detective Havenhurst awkwardly offers Brad’s girlfriend, Ingrid (Chloë Sevigny) and his theater director, Lee Myers (Udo Kier), cups of mid-afternoon coffee as they continue their retelling of the suspect’s life in a surveillance van. It may seem somewhat fitting in a bland description, but Dafoe’s delivery and sudden change of focus make it feel jarring – like a line dropped in a scene by someone trying to create an artificial life-like quality after having only read about human social interaction. There’s also a few “pseudo-freeze frames” where the scene simply ends, but all of the characters hold their position and stare at the camera. Herzog clearly hasn’t held the footage; you can see some of the actors struggle to hold the pose or move their eyes ever so slightly.
In a lesser movie, these little moments would be signs of weakness, but for My Son, My Son, it’s clearly directorial intent. Herzog is trying to highlight the absurdity of our daily lives, showing both the poetry of a single ironic moment and the strange way in which we choose to interpret and focus on certain moments over others which may have greater significance. In so doing, he brings us closer to the bizarre mind of his killer, as these little incongruences eat away at our vision of reality. Herzog is working diligently to make us question the ways we unthinkingly interact with and experience the world, asking that we take equal time to smell the flowers and the shit – because life is about both of these extremities.
My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? is clearly not for everyone. It’s a strange movie that only barely hangs on to the foundations of an investigative thriller, with characters that often fail to feel believable, especially at first. There’s a ridiculous romance with forced symbolism and the paralleling of real life and the myths of our culture. Characters often stop talking to themselves and appear to be simply mouthpieces for the director and the point he is trying to make. But once you reach the end of this strange, strange ride, you’ll find your 90 minutes not ill-spent. The pieces coalesce and the places where the edges don’t line up become places of a strange, shining beauty that then colors the rest of the experience. My Son, My Son is a film student’s dream, and it made me want to go back and write an entire dissertation, dissecting every little oddity and choice. And that, my friends, is the sign of a brilliantly engaging film.