Edinburgh 2010 Review: MY SON, MY SON, WHAT HAVE YE DONE?

Werner Herzog's latest is lyrical, melodic, intense and a little absurd. A must see movie.

rating: 4

Of all the movies showing at this year€™s Edinburgh film fest, this one has my favourite title. It is lyrical and melodic, and a little absurd. Too often people miss the humour that Werner Herzog brings to his movies, and listening to the audience during this one was a curious experience. There was laughter, but it was spread-out and discontinuous. Some things that may come across as blackly comic to some may seem tragic to others. This quality was evident in Herzog€™s last movie, Bad Lieutenant (or to give it its full title: The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans), which Herzog apparently said was a movie about €˜the bliss of evil.€™ My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done is less about evil than madness, and less about bliss than torment. It focuses on Brad McCullum (Michael Shannon), an intense, troubled young man who lives with his mother, herself fairly batty. He is engaged to Ingrid (Chloë Sevigny), for whom his mother barely conceals her contempt. Their story €“ if it can be called that €“ is told in flashback after Brad kills his mother and locks himself in his home, claiming to have hostages. He kills her with the sword that he is using as a prop in a play, where he plays a character who kills his mother. This detail is taken from a real case which inspired this story.

The police, led by Hank Havenhurst (Willem Dafoe, in fine form as ever) try to piece together what made this guy tick, and why he€™d kill the person everyone agrees he loved most. We learn that he keeps flamingos (my €˜eagles in drag€™), and that he never really knew his father. At one point he goes to a military hospital so can see €˜the sick.€™ Who in particular? €˜Just the sick in general.€™ He believes, in one of my favourite touches, that he has seen God €˜in the kitchen.€™ Who he thinks represents God I will leave you to discover. He thinks he hears His voice on the radio. At a couple of points, when his girlfriend questions what he is doing, his response is an intense €˜so what?€™ Maybe he€™s just a messed up, fairly lonely guy trying to deal with the meaninglessness of it all. However I don€™t think Herzog€™s goal is to explain the mind of this guy. In my head I see Herzog having a lot of fun trying to decide on the specifics of this nutjob€™s life and personality. Maybe that€™s all wrong: for all I know Herzog deeply empathises with Brad. Certainly it asks more questions than it answers. As always with Herzog there is some fairly striking imagery: the image in particular that springs to mind is of Brad€™s house, with its bright pink facade and ominous cacti. The shot is intensified through repetition, until it starts to feel like a reflection of Brad€™s troubled mind. The whole pink aesthetic (from walls to flamingos) of this suburban home adds to the nightmarish sense of the place.

The movie lists David Lynch as executive producer, and there are hints of Lynch about it too, particularly in the scenes between Brad and his mother. Brad Dourif, by now a Herzog favourite, appears as his ornery, prejudiced uncle. This is not a healthy family, although we only see them through Ingrid€™s eyes, who herself only sees them through Brad€™s. Herzog is obsessed, it seems to me, with the obsessive. From Fitzcarraldo to Timothy Treadwell (Grizzly Man) many of his movies have dealt with intensely focussed characters. Once upon a time, he probably would have got Klaus Kinski to play the lead role here. It is no small compliment to Shannon to say that he does just about as good a job: his intensely staring eyes appear to be looking for answers in everything, or trying to put the fear into whoever he€™s speaking to. I realise that€™s the third time I€™ve used the word €˜intense€™ in this review, but there is no other word for it. His obsession marks a dark counterpoint to the phony cheer of his suburban environment. This isn€™t vintage Herzog, on par with Aguirre or Fitzcarraldo, but it is enjoyably troubling, or troublingly enjoyable.

I've been a film geek since childhood, and am yet to find a cure. Not an auteurist, but my favourite directors include Robert Altman, Ernst Lubitsch, Welles, Hitch and Kurosawa. I also love Powell & Pressburger movies, anything with Fred Astaire, Cary Grant or Katherine Hepburn, the space-ballet of 2001, Ealing comedies, subversive genre cinema and that bit in The Producers with the fountain.