Already on very limited release in UK cinemas and released on DVD on 27th September (coinciding with the release of Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call: New Orleans ) is Werner Herzog’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? (2009), his latest feature film, which has gained notoriety for Herzog’s collaboration with producer David Lynch.
Based vaguely on events from the late 70s, it centers around a hostage negotiation. Brad Macallam (Michael Shannon) is holed up in his pastel-pink home after killing his overbearing mother with an antique sword, Detective Havenhurst (Willem Dafoe) is investigating the events which lead to this.
What is an incredibly simple set-up is made completely gripping by a series of honest, otherwordly and dryly comic performances, subtle and inimitable direction, dreamy cinematography, and a thrilling use of music. And I for one think the notorious ‘mixture’ of Herzog and Lynch works like a charm.
Michael Shannon, Oscar nominated on-screen ‘madman’ whose incredible performance in Bug (2006) should have led to much bigger things, is the maniacal centre around which the film pivots. This is somebody not viciously insane, but anguished, stressed by his overbearing mother and seemingly searching for something in which he can find a certain salvation (a tape of religious preaching proves to be this on one occasion). Shannon excels in darting his eyes, gently quivering, giving the distinct sense of the cogs turning in his minda. And it’s by no means a bad thing that he’s ‘mad’ throughout the film. Explanation isn’t the point. What matters is the magical build-up of tension and fear.
The rest of the cast is uniformly impressive, but to name a couple; Brad Dourif is as stunningly natural as ever as Macallam’s bigoted ostrich-farmer uncle, spouting brash and hilarious lines when hearing Brad wants to act, telling him “only faggots and niggers with attitude become actors”, then asking “does your mother know you’re mixed up in shit like this?” Cult actor Udo Kier’s stern facial structure and bright, sharp eyes bely the titteringly soft, camp voice with which he speaks, gently placating Brad throughout while unwittingly instilling fear more strongly in the audience.
The dialogue and image-staging is where people may find it easiest to see the mixture of Herzog and Lynch (though there is little point). Miniature dialogue set-pieces coming full circle (Macallam’s insistence that he “see the sick…in general”) and his “razzle dazzle” mantra seem particularly Lynchian, whereas the flamingo imagery and ambient use of music flowing between scenes (there is hardly a moment when the fantastic music isn’t playing, always building up the bizarre tension) is very much Herzog.
What’s so good is how perfectly they fit together – it’s only when looking back that I split them up. When they come together in moments of ‘ecstatic truth’ the film touches a feeling only Herzog himself can conjure; to cite one, a Blue Velvet-esque shot of the love-triangle of Brad and his mother and fiancee serving Jello builds quietly up to a surging soundtrack movement, as the actors slow there movements to freeze in an unnerving tableaux. These moments come as smaller grace notes too, memorably in one scene when Herzog shows his playfulness with the cliche’d cop procedural by starting a scene with thirty seconds of a detective modestly bringing water to each of his underlings. It’s wonderfully poignant.
The film is beautifully shot on the RED One digital camera (something Herzog now has reservations about), all popping pastel-shades and soft, shadowed crevices (most of which around Shannon’s tormented eyes). If there’s a minor fault in the film, it’s that it could probably be even shorter than its 88 minutes (certain scenes seem to reach their apex and then drag on a touch too long). But this is a very minor fault in a film which really surprised me, planting a seed of dread in my mind as it concluded. Highly recommended.