My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done? – 2009
Director Werner Herzog
Starring Michael Shannon, Willem Dafoe, Chloë Sevigny, Udo Kier, Michael Peña, Grace Zabriskie, Brad Dourif
Screenplay by Herzog and Herbert Golder
Herzog and Golder were thinking of making a movie about the real life murderer Mark Yavorsky, who committed a matricide, mirroring the play of Orestes. He had been cast in the lead of the play at his college, UCSD and took things a tad too literally. Golder had met with Yavorsky for a series of interviews, and upon Herzog’s meeting with him during their last interview, an idea was hatched. Soon afterwards, Herzog discovered that Yavorsky had created a shrine dedicated to one of his films. They decided to scale back on the direct comparison to the subject in the script. What they came up with is disturbing, to say the least, and perhaps most because of its basis in reality. Michael Shannon has a lot to do with it, too.
The meeting of Herzog and Shannon is not without its flaws. There are more than a few segments that stand out as goofy and almost sophomoric. Most of the screen time with Sevigny is a mystery to me. By now we are all used to seeing her acquiesce to the strangest characters on the screen. As brave as the choice was, it’s almost impossible to think about The Brown Bunny when I see her on-screen. She always comes across as a timid shrew who just puts up with abuse, craziness or both. Her onscreen persona feels like, “Please pay attention to me, as I am trying not to draw attention to myself.” This time is no exception. As Ingrid, she is the betrothed to Brad McCullum (Shannon), she bears witness to many odd conversations, most of which Brad is having with himself.
She’s not the only one who puts up with this odd behavior. She’s not even the only one who excuses it. Everyone wants the best for Brad. It just seems that he has not been the same since he came back from the trip to Peru, when he was smart enough to not get on a boat during the most dangerous boating season of the year. He claims God told him to avoid it. Perhaps it was that he had eyes and he wasn’t on drugs. Either way, when he comes back, these voices continue, or something does.
His mother, who loves him oppressively, but not cruelly. Mrs. McCullum (Zabriskie) plays along as well as she can. She follows along with his claims as reasonably as she can, while placing herself firmly in a wedge between Brad and Ingrid. Ingrid remains steadfast, though. No one, it seems, will keep her from her crazy love.
Kier, as play director and friend Lee Meyers, also spends some gloriously awkward times in the fluctuating circle of sanity. His appearance is strange outside of the environment of the play stage. Indeed, one of the highlights of the film is when Brad takes Lee to visit Uncle Ted (Dourif) on the Ostrich farm. The combination of Tedd and Lee is glorious, especially when Lee loses a pair of glasses.
Dafoe and Peña are largely wasted as two detectives who interview folks between flashbacks. As straightforward as the premise is, Herzog manages to leave images that burn in the mind, using the talent of Shannon in effectively limited doses. There are many things that contribute to tragedy, but Herzog doesn’t push many theories on the viewer. The result is disturbingly effective. The viewer knows they are seeing some unusual behavior, but it is not limited to the protagonist / antagonist Brad. Each of the people that surround him are unwitting contributors to the tragedy.
My Son… ends up being an effective demonstration of the helplessness in modern society to mental illness. Since the matricide that served as inspiration for the screenplay, the de-regulation of sanitariums and HIPAA have help to create a society of watchers who understand someone needs help, but are powerless to act until tragedy strikes. It’s hard enough to act in the first place. Now we are prohibited from seeking information, and almost entirely prevented from committing someone until it’s too late. At times this is very frustrating to watch. When you see the moment that Brad literally thrusts someone into the position of acting, and then they don’t, it’s hardly surprising. People are trained to follow laws and remain passive. It’s institutional. Crazy is anything acting out of the framework of the institution.
There are some brilliantly obtuse moments littered throughout the story, including a comical revelation of the hostages. Shannon has so many ways to stay appealing even when you think he couldn’t be any more nuts. His attendance at the open of the play could have been played myriad ways, and somehow he found the right one. I appreciate the Razzle and the Dazzle. Even if it might cost me dearly.
(**** out of *****)