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My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done

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Release Date: 
Scanbox Entertainment
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Directed by: 
Werner Herzog
Michael Shannon
Willem Dafoe
Chloë Sevigny
Grace Zabriski
Udo Kier
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The unusual omission of a question mark in the title is only the first, and one of the more minor examples, of this defiantly un-showy yet inveterately strange little movie’s utter unconventionality in nearly everything apart from the desire to tell a compelling story. With Werner Herzog in the director’s chair and David Lynch helping the project along with enthusiasm and funding from his production company ABSURDA, how could it have been anything else but unconventional? Based on true events concerning an actor from San Diego by the name of Mark Yavorsky, who, in 1979, murdered his own mother in a neighbour’s house using a ceremonial sword -- a chilling echo of the actions of the character he was playing on stage at the time for a production of  Aeschylus’s trilogy of Greek tragedies known as “The Oresteia” -- the film is in no way a forensic recreation of the circumstances of those events, nor is it an clinical examination of the mental state which led to the crime being committed in the first place, and then resulted in Yavorsky spending the next eight years in a maximum security prison for the criminally insane before winding up in a ramshackle trailer where he eventually died in 2003 of natural causes. Instead, the film attempts to recreate something of the texture of the obsessive worldview of Herzog and his co-writer Herbert Golder’s fictional counterpart to the real-life Yavorsky, who they call Brad McCullum (played by a suitably intense Michael Shannon). This is an unbalanced, out-of-kilter worldview where time can freeze in moments of spiritual epiphany and insight, the parenting of ostriches holds the key to ancient wisdom, and where God lives in a can of Quaker oats! --  All of this and a great deal else is evoked through flashbacks borne on the testimony of the people who knew McCullum, as they’re being interviewed by Willem Dafoe’s sympathetic but increasingly confused-looking investigating cop.

The film begins with Detective Hank Havenhurst (Dafoe) and his rookie partner Detective Vargas (Michael Peña) arriving at the crime scene, whereupon they immediately start meticulously cataloguing everything in the room, before realising that their only suspect -- the murdered woman’s son, Brad (Shannon) -- had earlier been seen leaving the scene to return to his own home just across the road. He claims to be holding two hostages, but no one is quite sure who they are. McCullum’s fiancé Ingrid (a compellingly nervy performance from Chloë Sevigny) turns up, as does the director of the Greek tragedy both McCullum and Ingrid were to have appeared in together -- the director, Lee Meyers (Udo Kier), claiming that he was called to the scene by a phone call from McCullum the previous night, in which the former actor expressed a desire to see him. While Havenhurst and Vargas wait for the SWAT team to arrive, they attempt to calm an excitable McCullum – who’s barricaded himself inside his house -- and find out as much as they can about him anecdotally from Ingrid, Meyers, and the two elderly neighbours who originally witnessed the crime commited in their home.

A strange story unfolds, told by Herzog and Golder’s screenplay in fragmented flashbacks which, nevertheless, blend seamlessly, despite the increasingly odd nature of the mind-set they are illustrating. Ingrid relates how Brad’s personality changed after he returned from a doomed Kayaking trip to Peru in which the rest of his rather stoned-looking hippy friends perished, babbling about an inner-voice that saved him from joining the others on their ill-fated expedition, and which he must now obey whenever it speaks to him. Scenes unfold which depict the strained relationship between Brad’s over-possessive mother (Lynch regular Grace Zabriskie, in full-on ‘Lynchian Weird’ mode) and Brad and his fiancé, who all live together in the same house in San Diego dominated by its garish flamingo-pink colour scheme. Meyers tells of McCullum’s increasingly eccentric behaviour during rehearsals for the play; and of a trip to see Brad’s aging Uncle Ted (Brad Dourif), who owns an ostrich farm and has an antique ceremonial sword which Brad insists on using in the play instead of a prop. Brad starts to give away his possessions to bemused passers-by and tries to visit the Naval Hospital in Mexico in which his father died, because he wants to ‘visit the sick in general’. Finally, Havenhurst speaks to one of the neighbours, Mrs Roberts (Irma P. Hall), about the day of the murder itself, during which Mrs McCullum told her that Brad had tried to smother her with a pillow the previous night -- just before her Son returns from a trip across the road to get his coffee cup, carrying the fateful sword …

Perhaps there couldn’t actually be any other movie where the twin influences of the directors primarily involved with it were quite as obvious as they are in this one. You don’t even have to see the credits to work out who’s likely responsible for it: the narrative’s concern with a singular, obsessive and single-minded-to-the-point-of-being-deranged lone protagonist on an apparently mad quest, is the quintessential theme of Werner Herzog’s cinema; and the quintessential imagery one associates with the director is probably that of man dwarfed by mountainous landscapes in forbidding, remote zones where nature seems wild and untamed, such as that of the Urubamba River in Peru, to which Herzog returns for this film for several scenes, nearly forty years after making  “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” and “Fitzcarraldo” there, in virtually the same location.

Meanwhile, the presence of Grace Zabriskie isn’t the only indicator of David Lynch’s involvement: although Lynch had nothing to do with the script or the shooting of the film, Herzog -- who now lives in the US himself -- seems to have repaid his enthusiasm for the project and the intentions behind it by making the whole thing virtually a tribute to the world of David Lynch’s cinema. Thus, the film exudes a peculiar ambience that suggests it’s the work of one legendary and distinctive director trying to pastiche the oeuvre of another: the harsh digital look of the film is a testament to both directors’ newfound commitment to making ‘essential’ cinema that is free of the usual shackles – financial and artistic -- of the commercial film industry; but the eccentric performances, the oddball dialogue and non sequiturs; the dreamlike interludes and the obsession with coffee, and even a few specific images, often seem like pitch-perfect recreations of moments from Lynch’s work. On the commentary track, Herzog says that he feels that both his and Lynch’s films ‘dance with each other rather than talk to each other’, but this film is certainly trying to dance with the same eccentric mannerisms and in the same distinctive clothes as its host! Often it takes the form of specific film quotes, like a scene in which producer Eric Bassett (also a Lynch associate) is seen wearing an oxygen mask in tribute to Frank Booth from “Blue Velvet”; but if you at first manage to miss most such references, by the time we get to one memorable sequence, which seems to just about sum up the visual styles and thematic obsessions of both directors simultaneously, you would be hard pushed not to catch on to Herzog’s game: a dwarf, dressed in full tuxedo, standing on top of the stump of an absolutely massive (the largest in the world according to Herzog) tree trunk, while  haunting music plays and while Brad Dourif and Michael Shannon gaze obliquely into the camera lens in front of him. Dreamlike, random, unsettling and seemingly nothing whatsoever to do with the surrounding material (apart from signifying a clear attempt to develop some kind of symbiotic affinity between two film artistes), it becomes the defining image of the film.

And yet, the manner in which Herzog and his writing partner have gone about the actual creative process itself couldn’t be more indicative of the maverick German director’s generally on-the-edge approach to his work. What other film-maker, upon setting out to make a movie about a real-life murder case, would actually attempt to forge a relationship with the murderer on which his film was to be partially based? Actually, it was Herbert Golder, the classics scholar turned screenplay writer, who would make the initial contact with Mark Yavorsky-- his fascination with the case piqued by the ramifications suggested by art bleeding into real life in such a dramatic way, and vice-versa. A telling fact is that Herzog found a shrine to Klaus Kinski’s character from “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” inside Yavorsky’s trailer, and immediately terminated all contact with the man!

The film is a ‘dance’ (to return to Herzog’s own metaphor for the relationship between his and Lynch’s work) between stylised artifice and real life, reflecting the world of myth and religious metaphor, and how understanding and consciousness are formed and changed by contact with them, sometimes in strange or incompatible ways. Some of the strangest moments come when anecdotes and lines of dialogue which seem utterly bizarre and bewildering in a typically Lynchian fashion, turn out to have been taken from actual documentation of the real case, amassed by Golder during his research. Material from the Greek tragedies is cherry-picked for its thematic relevance in a similar way. The unique, docu-realist harshness of the digital video cinematography of Peter Zeitlinger seems tempered by a hazy, pastel post-production colour grading scheme which, along with Dutch cellist Ernst Reijseger’s doomy, portentous, but somehow soothing score, injects the appropriate air of madness, myth and unreality into a film which was shot not that that far from the actual parched, San Diegan landscape in which the original crime took place.

A supremely creepy, nursery rhyme-like early Gospel song by George Washington Philips, ‘I was Born to Preach the Gospel’, is played several times by McCullum on a tinny portable disc-player, and captures the character’s fragile, dislocated madness struggling with the scariness of a ‘reality’ which is telling him that he have to kill his mother in order to save the world (the real Yavorsky also believed he had to be crucified on live TV afterwards). The tension between myth and reality; playing a role and acting a part, is beautifully symbolised by Herzog throughout the movie by a line of gawping onlookers to the siege (a completely fictional construct by the authors – no such event took place in real life) who crowd around staring at or listening to Dafoe’s questioning of suspects or the dramatic SWAT team intervention, as intently as the audience for Meyer’s staging of the Greek tragedy that inspired McCullum’s act of matricide, or, perhaps, the audience watching at home.

The UK DVD from Scanbox Entertainment provides as good a transfer as the Red One camera and the Digital Video technology with which the film was made is capable of supplying. A choice of 5.1 Surround sound and 2.0 Stereo are provided and the disc comes with an insightful half-hour documentary in which Herzog and Golder discuss the real-life case, backed with photographs of the real killer which they took while they were associated with him, as well as contemporary newspaper clippings documenting the crime itself.  Behind-the-scenes footage of the shoot also appears, and both participants talk about their approach to the subject matter in engrossing detail. An audio commentary in which the two are joined by producer Eric Bassett further expands on the information given in the documentary, with Golder pointing out specific instances which have been taken from the real case, and Herzog explaining the intention behind the very weird, artificial freeze frame device he employs on numerous occasions during the movie.

“My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done” is out of kilter and off the radar as far as the crime thriller genre is concerned, but its wonderful performances and its unique approach to the exploration of an inheritably unfathomable real-life case seems perfectly valid. Inevitably, this hugely stylised, mannered and completely individualistic approach to such material is as hermetically sealed from the conventions of mainstream cinema as is the tortured mind of Brad McCullum from the work-a-day world. It will inevitably strike anyone not willing to go along with its artistic conceits as insufferably pretentious. It does, though, manage to build an unsettling atmosphere without resorting to any of the usual methods for generating such a quality, and for that it deserves to be given a chance.

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