“My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done” (2009) might seem a bit strange to someone not knowing that it was produced by David Lynch and directed by Werner Herzog. From such a team, what is in many ways a rather static police standoff with a killer who claims to have hostages seems pretty humdrum. OK, there is a mysterious tuxedo-wearing dwarf in one scene in which Southern California ostrich-rancher Brad Dourif is talking about making a commercial with a dwarf on a small pony overshadowed by a 45-pound chicken. There are flashbacks to the Urubamba River (on the eastern side of the Andes, below Macchu Picchu) and to Kashgar, Xinjiang (the Muslim/Uighur northwesternmost region in the PRC, which was formerly romanized as Sinkiang and also known as “Chinese Turkmenistan”), the latter particularly unrelated to anything else in the movie, but showing a Uighur with the longest eyebrow hair I’ve ever seen. And the killer has a pair of pet flamingoes and a collection of flamingo objets d’art.
The movie is not at all a whodunit. Its tagline is “The mystery isn’t who, but why.” Alas, it fails to answer what it regards as the question. The beginning also specifies that the movie was “inspired by a true story,” the case of a young San Diego actor, Mark Yavorsky, who was playing Orestes (in Aeschylus’s “Eumenides”, the third play of the Oresteia) and, like Orestes, slew his mother (not the actress playing Clytemnestra, but his biological mother). Sometimes classicist, sometimes Herzog collaborator Herbert Golder tracked down the real killer, who had been released from a facility for the criminally insane and interviewed him at considerable length. (In a bonus feature counterpoising interviews of Golder and of Herzog, Herzog claims to have been freaked out the one time he went along to meet the real killer, whose trailer had an altar to “Aguirre, Wrath of God.”)
For me, the primary mystery of the movie was not the matricide, Brad McCullum, played by Michael Shannon, who is even crazier here than he was in his Oscar-nominated role in “Revolutionary Road,” or the question of who the hostages were, or even whom the matricide considered God at the moment (candidates including the icon of a puritan on an oatmeal box and a recording of a southern preacher on his boombox), but why his girlfriend stayed with him and rushed to him when he called her before slaying his mother (down the street, where two black women, whom I think are mother and daughter live). The loyal girlfriend, Ingrid, is played by Chloë Sevigny, who has made a career out of playing clueless women making stupid choices (such as Vincent Gallo in “The Brown Bunny”), but her character is quite aware that Brad is wacko and in a pathological relationship with his mother (David Lynch regular Grace Zabriskie, who played the mother of Laura Palmer In “Twin Peaks,” “Inland Empire,” etc.) with both of them extremely passive/aggressive.
I also wondered why the director of the play put up with Brad’s disruptive behavior for so long (before firing him) and also rushed to the scene when Brad called him (also before the deed was done)… and why none of the many police arrayed outside the house don’t shoot when they have a clear shot of Brad. That they supply him a pizza is easier to accept.
Though the movie has four actors who have been nominated for Oscars (Willem Dafoe, Michael Shannon, Brad Dourif, and Chloë Sevigny) plus Irma P. Hall, Udo Kier, Michael Peña, and Grace Zabriskie, all of whom seem to me to play their parts well (or better), the animals are more interesting, especially the ostrich named “God” who lunges and swallows Udo Kier’s glasses out of his pocket (after a ranch hand forces it to disgorge them, Kier tells it not to do that again, as he cleans ostrich innards fluids off his glasses). OK, I liked the iguana in Herzog’s “Bad Lieutenant” too… but in a Herzog/Lynch movie I expect the offbeat to be more interesting than the plot, particularly so conventional a one as the police/armed lunatic standoff one herein.
Back to the “why” question: mother, girlfriend, neighbors, and director all were cognizant that Brad had come back from Perú weird, and let him play with the samurai sword that his uncle (who seems as psychotic as Brad) let him take. Brad started hearing voices on the Urubamba, including one commanding him not to try to kayak the raging river (a quite sensible decision, not least in that the rest of the group who did try to run the whitewater all drowned). He also converted to Islam. This weirdness is a residue of the real matricide, who converted to Islam when he was on the Braldu River i in the Northwestern territories of Pakistan (which is to say a Muslim area, one sheltering Taliban and al-Quaida leaders). On the bonus track, Herzog explains that it was too dangerous for American actors and technicians to go there. Shannon, Herzog, and some crew members did travel to Xinjiang, a place that is almost as explosive an area (though more for Han Chinese than for Americans) and filmed without permits (guerilla film-making). The fictional matricide could have become Muslim there, but following conversion to Islam with matricide probably seemed too volatile to foreground, even though it remains a sign of mental instability even occurring in the Upper Amazon (where Klaus Kinski went crazy in “Aguirre” and “Fitzcarraldo”).
Brad has been crazy a long time, and asks the younger of the neighbors to kill him (with a baseball bat) to stop him (before he unwraps the sword and stabs his mother, whose last words are the phrase in the title with the archaic “ye”). The role engulfment (as Orestes) is less convincing than that of Ronald Colman’s (Oscar-winning) actor playing Othello throttling first an offstage, then an onstage Desdemona in “A Double Life.” Golder says he has long been fascinated by Jules Dassin’s 1978 movie “A Dream of Passion” in which an actress readying herself to play Medea (Melina Mercouri) communes with a woman in prison for slaying her children (Ellen Burstyn)-a film that is, alas, not available on DVD. “My Son” does not deliver any insights into role distance/role engulfment and Brad seems not only crazy by matricidal before rehearsing Orestes. There is also no explanation for his flamingo fetish, And the whole hostage standoff frame of the movie owes nothing to the real story that “inspired” the screenplay from Golder and Herzog, btw.
As usual, Herzog playing a voice of reason is more entertaining than the movie he is discussing. The DVD also includes Ramin Bahrani dazzling short about the “life cycle” of a plastic bag, narrated by Herzog, which is outstanding, wry, and does not beg the question as “My Son” does. (Well, the “what” question of the title is answered, but the stabbed mother also really mean “why?”)
My other online Herzog film reviews:
Signs of Life (1968)
Fata Morgana (1971)
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974)
Heart of Glass (1976)
Cobra Verde (1987)
Lessons of Darkness (1992)
Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1998)
Incident at Loch Ness (2004, playing himself in a movie directed by Zak Penn with whom he cowrote the screenplay)
Rescue Dawn (2006)