While a cinematic marriage between Bavarian adventurer auteur Werner Herzog and American celluloid surrealist David Lynch sounds like one of the most prestigious prospects for a film made in 'arthouse auteur heaven,' I must admit that I initially had my reservations for such a film, especially when considering my disillusionment with both directors’ most recent work. While Herr Herzog has been churning out curious subpar cinematic works for about a decade now or so as a crazy kraut who has finally been accepted in Hebraic Hollywood (I guess all those years inexplicably kissing Spielberg's kosher ass finally paid off), loony Lynch seems more interested in promoting signature coffee beans and pseudo-spiritual meditative swill; two absurdly priced products that do not even equal the most nonsensical of episodes from the second season of Twin Peaks in terms of quality. Of course, when I learned that the Herzog directed and Lynch produced film My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? (2009) featured the charming yet seemingly cracked character actor Michael Shannon (Shotgun Stories, Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans) as a maniac ‘anti-hero’ and celebrated German cult film poof Udi Kier (Blood for Dracula, Egomania - Insel ohne Hoffnung) in a more dignified role, as well as Willem Dafoe, Chloë Sevigny, Grace Zabriskie, and Brad Dourif, I could not help but anticipate the film. Although I initially saw My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? around the time it was first released, I decided to digest it and watch it a couple more times before writing on it, not least of all because I wanted to make sure I was not hallucinating what I found to be a fairly enthralling, eccentric, and – whether intentional or not – sadistically side-splitting film. Described by Herzog himself as, “a horror film without the blood, chainsaws and gore, but with a strange, anonymous fear creeping up in you,” My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? fully exceeded my admittedly conflicting expectations, even if it does not even deserve to be described as a “masterpiece,” but more like an audacious dramatic anti-thriller riddled with mostly excusable flaws that features a stunning and artistically subversive look at one severely sinking son’s schizzo psyche as a curiously comical character study that ultimately brings up more questions than it actually answers, thereupon acting in complete contradiction to the typical Hollywood film of this sort.
Loosely based on the real-life story of a mentally ill fellow named Mark Yavorsky – a high school basketball star, scholar, and talented graduate student in drama – who on June 10, 1979, at the age of 34, stabbed to death his mother with a three-foot-long antique saber sword in a scenario strikingly reminiscent of the Greek tragedy “Orestes,” My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? is a film that was long in the making before reaching Herzog's aesthetically heretical hands that began as a script by classics scholar Herbert Golder – a fellow heavily inspired by Jules Dassin's A Dream of Passion (1978) – who began a somewhat personal relationship with the troubled fellow who committed matricide in an act that probably can best described as the aberrant behavior of a maniac with an overwhelming anti-oedipal complex. After taking Werner Herzog to meet Yavorsky in 1995 for what would be one of his last meetings with the gifted maniac, as the Bavarian auteur found the mommy-slayer to be quite "argumentative" (not to mention the fact the filmmaker was quite perturbed to learn that the funny fellow had made a shrine in his mobile home in dedication to his film Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)), Golder and the German auteur shopped around for producers but it would be until well over a decade later before the two conversed with David Lynch; a filmmaker that could most certainly relate to their artistic predicament. Agreeing that the film would be, thankfully, "a return to essential filmmaking," My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? was eventually sired by two of the world cinema’s most sacred and subversive sons of cinema and the rest is film history.
A self-loathing white policeman who derives pleasure verbally bashing ‘crackers cops’ to his Hispanic compatriot Vargas (Michael Peña) as the sort of idiosyncratic half-intelligent/half-idiot you would expect from a Herzog film, Detective Hank Havenhurst (Willem Dafoe) has some serious identity issues, but they pale in comparison to Brad McCullum’s (Michael Shannon) all-consuming cognitive dissonance. Unbeknownst to Havenhurst, mommy murdering maniac McCullum walks right by him in the chaos of a crime scene after fleeing the home of the black Aunt Jemima-esque neighbor where he just slaughtered the ostensibly overbearing woman that gave birth to him some 30+ years before. A burdened bastard boy who never knew his father (and refuses to reference him as such), Brad McCullum was still virtually attached to the umbilical cord of his perversely pampering and odiously overprotective mother until he literally 'cut her off' as one learns as My Son, What Have Ye Done? progresses. The sole survivor of a kayaking trip in Peru (filmed at a favorite spot of Herzog's where he filmed scenes for Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo) due to a penetrating premonition from God himself that he should stay behind and not go in the water, McCullum morphed into a megalomaniac with a messiah complex who saw images of the holy one on the front of Quaker Oats oatmeal containers, which he wastes no time in showing to the less than intrigued police officers and SWAT team members that have surrounded the home where he purportedly has taken two people hostage. Lee Meyers (Udo Kier) – Brad’s theatre teacher – also lets Havenhurst know that his student started beginning to be unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality during practice sessions for the Greek tragedy he was supposed to star in, but was taken out of due to his exceedingly erratic and borderline violent behavior. Of course, in Brad's mind, the show must go on and he opts for more realistic options that are only all the more inspired when his half-crazy, homo-hating Uncle Ted (Brad Dourif) hooks him up with a fancy antique sword. Aside from Lee, Ingrid (Chloë Sevigny) – the unconventionally menacing mommy mangler’s finance – knows Brad the most intimately and is thus best equipped to describe to detective Havenhurst the perturbing process of her beserk’s beau’s brazen and belligerent break with reality. When it comes down to it and when everything is said and done, Brad seems most concerned about his "eagles in drag" aka pink flamingos than the fact he has just killed his mother and will most likely be staying in prison for a very long time with nefarious negroes who have very little tolerance for white weirdo witlessness. Needless to say, Detective Hank Havenhurst is certainly not interested in honkey nonsensicalness and thus deals with batty bad boy Brad accordingly. Told in a series of flagrant and frolicsome yet certainly serious and sometimes semi-surreal flashbacks, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? has an undeniable classic hallucinatory Herzog feel to it, except set in the seemingly unlikely place of sunny Los Angeles, California; a region where David Lynch exercised phantasmagorical cinematic psychodramas time and time again via Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Drive (2001), and Inland Empire (2006), thereupon making the Bavarian auteur filmmaker’s minacious murder mystery – whether a conscious decision or not – a tribute of sorts to the absurdist American auteur who brought true celluloid kultur to the stagnant and soulless City of Angels.
Herzog may have finally went ‘Hollywood,’ but as he explained in the audio commentary for the Anchor Bay DVD release of Stroszek (1977), he seriously feels that all the best Americans are from the Midwest, thus it should be no surprise that the Los Angeles, California featured in My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? seems more like a sterile lunatic asylum that sows sadistic mother-sacrificing sons and policemen prone to self-flagellation than a place of marvelous mystique and intrigue as most films set in Tinseltown would lead one to believe. It should also be noted that for anti-hero Brad, it is visiting exotic places like the jungles of Peru (as well as Machu Picchu), City of Calgary, and Kashgar, China that prove to be life-changing religious experiences of sorts – something Herzog can oddly relate to considering his largely international cinematic oeuvre – that only inflame his hatred for the contrived suburban life that his smothering mother has made for him. As real-life mommy-slayer Yavorsky’s USD English professor Dick Peacock stated of his perplexing pupil: “He always seemed to have a classic, dramatic sense of life. He was an excellent writer and poet. Not rhymes about sunsets, but in the real, classic tradition of poetry. He wrote a lot about his father who had died, whom he had never known.” In My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, Brad refuses to recognize the man who spawned him as his father (because he, “never knew the man”), but one can easily see that the displacement of his paternal progenitor had the most dire of consequences because like the forsaken son in the play “Orestes,” which he originally starred in before being booted out of for his belligerent behavior, he killed his mother in revenge for the death of his father. Yavorsky died in 2003, but his disturbed spirit lives on in My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, even if, "About 70 percent of the script is false ... loosely made up" as Werner Herzog stated regarding the film. Nearly four decades before, Herzog released Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) aka Auch Zwerge haben klein angefangen – a stunningly surreal and startlingly subversive film that would have surely been described as a work of “degenerate art” by Nazi minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels about a group of deranged little people who escape from an asylum and wreck havoc upon the prison and its overseers – and with My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, the German filmmaker returned to form and brought a similar cinematic controlled chaos to the suburbs of LA in a most palatable way for quasi-mainstream audiences and for that alone, he must be commended. Thankfully, unlike two of his previous more recent films, Invincible (2001) and The Wild Blue Yonder (2005), My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? did not cause me to think to myself regarding the now-elderly Bavarian director: "What Have Ye Done?"