MY SON MY SON WHAT HAVE YE DONE, 2009
Starring: Michael Shannon, Willem Dafoe, Chloe Sevigny, Brad Dourif, Michael Pena
Inspired by a true crime, a man begins to experience mystifying events that lead him to slay his mother with a sword.
To call My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? an unconventional movie would be an understatement. I can imagine Werner Herzog thinking, “What can I do to completely defy any and all cinematic rules?” He succeeds brilliantly in creating a character study which is best described as a tragedy with deeply dark comic undertones. The film begins with Detectives Havenhurst (Willem Dafoe) and Vargas (Michael Pena) on their way to a crime scene. When they arrive at the scene, they are faced with a hostage situation which they attempt to diffuse for the rest of the film. Murder suspect Brad McCallum (Michael Shannon) is holed up in his house with two hostages and refuses to come out.
Flashbacks are interspersed among interviews with Brad’s fiancée, Ingrid, (Chloe Sevigny) and drama teacher, Lee Myers, (Udo Kier) both of which elucidate Brad’s descent into madness and eventual matricide. Herzog presents an odd tableau of events from Brad’s trips to Peru and Mexico, his interactions with his mother, fiancée and Uncle Ted (Brad Dourif ), and his experiences rehearsing Euripides’ Orestes. Lee informs Havenhurst, “That’s the one (play) where he kills his mother.” This turns out to be a case of life imitating art (and, in fact, this film is based on a true story). It seems that Herzog is asking us to look closer at the thin line existing between art and life.
Symbolic theatrical imagery is abundant throughout the film. Nouns and verbs associated with “sight” were popular in Greek tragedy and Herzog’s art direction team has picked up on this idea by using eyeglasses and to convey a sense of metaphoric recognition. The flamingoes are much more nebulous. In case you were taking the movie too seriously, flamingoes appear frequently throughout the film and serve a kind of “anti-symbolic” function. Eagles, often symbols in Greek tragedy and myth, are subverted into these pink birds which have become the lowest form of art: lawn ornaments. Along with the flamingo party lights and tchotchkes decorating Brad’s house, two real flamingoes replace the fake plastic type. Besides these “eagles in drag” (as Brad calls them), ostriches are also featured in the film as another kind of “unheroic” bird. At Uncle Ted’s ostrich farm, they prove to be feisty and provide an odd comic relief to the film’s dark overtones.
Michael Shannon gives a hypnotic performance and the rest of the cast should be commended as well for keeping straight faces. There are moments of real drama but most of the film is an experiment in subversion, resulting in bizarre tableaux which are at times uncomfortable (e.g. the scene where Brad and Uncle Ted stand in the midst of snowy forest like statues for nearly five minutes). It is definitely a conversation piece but if you’re looking for a film with a conventional narrative, this is not it. Herzog fans and David Lynch fans, however, will most likely be pleased.
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