Tuesday, March 23, 2010

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done

I wish I had shot/recorded the introduction and Q&A by the film's co-writer, Herbert Golder, when I saw it at the MFA on Saturday. I knew he would be doing one, sort of in the back of my head, but I was trying to fit three other movies into the day and, besides, I didn't realize that his contribution was not "writing a screenplay that was later acquired and re-written by Werner Herzog", but rather "working in the same room and accumulating a bunch of great Werner Herzog stories".

For instance:

* Werner Herzog has been trying to get giant chickens into his movies for years, ever since reading an article about forty-seven pound roosters. Specifically, he has a recurring dream about a giant rooster sitting on the largest tree stump in the world as a little person chases a miniature horse around it, trying to saddle it. This film is likely the closest he'll get, since (as is acknowledged in the film), giant roosters seemed to be an evolutionary/eugenic dead end. Ostriches are used instead.

* The genesis for the film came when Golder, a classics professor, was interviewing the inspiration for the main character while Herzog was taking meetings in L.A. for a big studio production that he knew would never get shot. They would meet afterward, and Golder said that this was the first, and likely last, time that his end of the conversation would ever be more interesting than Herzog's.

* They wrote it in a week at Herzog's cabin in Austria, with bon mots from Herzog along the lines of "you cannot stay for more than a week, but I will not let you leave until it is finished" and "if you are thinking, you are not writing." (paraphrased) The actual quotes are funnier, especially with Golder imitating Herzog's distinctive voice.

* The room with the piano and drum set in it was like that when they got to the house. The owners offered to move the instruments, but Herzog instantly fell in love with it, turning to Golder and saying "Herbert, write something". Naturally, that scene turns out to be indispensable.

Someday, I'm going to have to go to a festival that actually has Herzog in attendance, as those must be the most amazing Q&As of all time.

The film plays twice more at the MFA: Thursday 25 March 2010 at 5pm and Friday 26 March 2010 at 8:10pm. Golder will be taking questions after the Friday evening screening.

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 March 2010 at the Boston Museum of Art (Master Filmmaker)

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 Peña) 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 Peña 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.

Full review at eFilmCritic

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