If we didn’t know it before, we know it now. The opening credits appear, and the first line reads ‘David Lynch Presents a Film by Werner Herzog’. Thinking caps on, folks, ‘cos we’re about to get mighty cerebral. My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done tells the story of depressive Brad McCullum, and why he chose to slay his mother with a sword one summer’s day in a San Diego suburb. When you factor the director into your reckoning, you will deduce that it may not be as straightforward as all that.
McCullum (Michael Shannon, scary and intense, playing with furrowed brow and wild-eyed stare) is a troubled man. Raised fatherless, he has lived with his mother for all of his thirty-plus years, not leaving even when he found a girlfriend (a dim Chloe Sevigny). She instead moved in with the McCullums, and rues her lack of privacy. Brad tells her that he cannot leave; such is his love for his mother. It’s clear quite early, however, that theirs is not a healthy relationship. The mother seems over-fussy; the son regressive. We learn of this, and other occurrences by way of flashback; Detective Havenhurst (Willem Dafoe) arrives to survey the bloodshed and learns quickly that McCullum is holed up in his house with two hostages. Sevigny’s character, Ingrid, arrives and tells the cop what she knows. Her first inkling of a change in Brad, she says, is when he returned from a rafting trip to Peru. God spoke to him, she said, and for a while he dabbled in a change of religion before ultimately deciding to just follow the divine voice in his head.
Another interested party arrives. This is Lee Meyers, directory of a repertory company of which Brad was a member. They’ve been rehearsing a play, he tells the detective, a Greek tragedy called Orestes. It concerns matricide. Brad is into it, and visits his equally-crazy uncle (Brad Dourif) who, in-between tales of enormous chickens and ostriches, provides Brad with a humongous sword to use as a prop for the play. Hmm. One by one the flashbacks are told, and we piece together the misguided reasons for the moment of insanity.
Of course, being a Herzog movie, there are scenes so bizarre and incongruous that they spit in the face of convention; a hostage thriller is not supposed to contain spectacles-eating ostriches, and neither should it feature on-location shoots in deepest Peru or a dream sequence in a crowded Mongolian market-place. It most certainly should not contain a tuxedoed midget wandering through a forest. Even the opening scene, shot at ground level, of a ridiculously long train passing by, echoes the iguana-cam of Herzog’s previous film, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Most bizarre — yes, even more bizarre than the sight of a Mongolian with four-inch long eyebrows — is Herzog’s way of ending a couple of scenes where the actors just . . . freeze. For thirty seconds or more. You can see them wobbling, trying to stay still. Why? I have no idea. Maybe because no other movie has done it.
My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done is less mainstream than Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, which is a bit like saying that a cathedral is less moist than a bicycle. The narrative of the Nicolas Cage movie was stronger, though, and is something that this film lacks. If you watch it expecting to discover a hostage thriller of the ilk of, say, The Negotiator you will not find it. If, however, you want to see a movie directed by a man to whom the words ‘it cannot be done’ exist only as a challenge, then this is the film for you.
By the way, if you haven’t seen it, watch this video showing Herzog getting shot by a drive-by BB-gunner. “It was not a significant bullet,” Herzog soothes afterwards in his clipped tone. The man’s priceless.