"So What? So What? So What!?"
Let me start this review by saying that I am an unabashed Werner Herzog fan. I absolutely love films like Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo. Herzog’s last film, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, was a weird and amazing film. If you thought that was weird, wait to you see My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done. My Son is a film about one man’s descent into madness and the film itself is quite strange.
This film, strange as it is, is actually based on a true story. I suppose this paragraph counts as a SPOILER, so if you want to watch this movie fresh I would suggest skipping to the next paragraph. My Son is based on the story of Mark Yavorsky, who was in a production of a matricidal Greek play. He took his role a bit too seriously and ended up killing his mother with a sword. Okay, that’s messed up already, and that’s the true story this film is based on. Herzog and co-writer Herbert Golder managed to amp up the insanity.
My Son stars Michael Shannon, the go-to crazy man of late, as Brad (still based on Mark Yavorsky, just a name change). After his performances in Bug and Revolutionary Road, he really is the perfect choice to play an insane character. Even though madness is nothing new for Shannon, he manages to give his most impressive performance yet. Just look at the poster; this man is capable of conveying such intensity through a stare alone. Throw in some absurd dialogue and you have a great chaotic performance.
Crazy is interesting enough, but it’s nothing new. My Son stands out because of Herzog’s filmmaking. His meandering camerawork fits in beautifully with the strangeness. The camerawork is reminiscent of Bad Lieutenant, so that’s not groundbreaking. What stands out, however, are the still scenes. By still I don’t mean that Herzog freezes the scene. I mean that he asks the actors to be as still as possible while he continues to film. It actually works quite well and these scenes are what stood out to me. And I must say, it takes guts for a director to ask actors to stand completely still for an extended amount of time in a scene in which an actress is holding a plate of Jell-o. I am not joking…that scene exists, and I loved it.
Herzog didn’t just make a crazy film, though. He made a beautiful film. The scenes in Peru reminded me of his earlier work in the jungle. The images of Michael Shannon standing at the banks of a rushing river and at the base of mountainous cliffs were amazing. Some of the shots in California were beautiful as well and Herzog found some interesting architecture to shoot, too. This film may be head scratching to some, but no one can deny that it looks great throughout.
Beautiful images and Michael Shannon’s crazed stare are interesting and all, but it takes more than that to make a great film. Thankfully, My Son has a great supporting cast. Willem Dafoe and Michael Peña get to play the clichéd detectives in an interesting counter to Brad’s insanity. Chloë Sevigny also tries to keep things sane as Brad’s fiancé. But it’s the other slightly off-balance characters that stand out. (Though to be fair, Dafoe always seems a little off-balanced.) Udo Kier is entertaining as a theatre director. His voice alone adds a little something to a movie. I always imagine that Herzog casts Kier when he cannot perform the role himself because Kier has a voice that rivals Herzog’s when it comes to insane sincerity. There is no humor in it, but you still have to laugh at times. Brad Dourif also makes a strange appearance as an ostrich farmer with some very grand and weird ideas. His presence alone makes the film a bit more interesting. But it’s Grace Zabriskie as Brad’s mother who impressed me the most. As the overbearing mother she is completely impressive through her facial gestures alone. At times, she looked even crazier than Brad. It really created the idea that Brad may have gone crazy because of his mother, even if that idea was not on the page.
On top of all the insanity of the film, there is actually quite a bit of humor. Perhaps it isn’t intentional, but if you watch it I imagine you’ll agree that some of this must have been meant to produce a laugh or two. Even if it isn’t intentional, it’s still great. The scenes with Dourif are quite funny and a lot of Brad’s random lines cracked me up throughout. A movie about a man going insane has to have a little bit of humor.
This isn’t a comedy, though. I laughed, sure, but it was more of a disturbing look at madness more than anything. That concept is driven home by the score. It may be a bit overbearing at times but it was unsettling throughout and that’s the point. The music places you in an unstable mind frame, which is exactly what you need to be in while watching this film.
The movie could possibly be off putting in its slow, strange style, but I found it completely engrossing. It’s been a few days since I’ve seen it, but it hasn’t left my thoughts. I keep thinking about it and I can’t wait to see it again. If a movie has that effect on me, then I have to get behind it and promote it as much as possible.
My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done is all over the place with the crazed performances, the random dialogue, the haunting score, and the beautiful images. It’s a strange mess of a film that somehow turned into a film that I absolutely love. I can say that this is going into my top ten of the year without a doubt, but it is out there and some people might find it stupid and boring. I think it’s worth checking out, though. If you like Herzog and you’re looking for something a bit more interesting than the mainstream has to offer, then watch this as soon as possible.