Having ruffled Abel Ferrara’s feathers by remaking Bad Lieutenant Werner Herzog returns to indulge his passion for framing real life events through his unique brand of ‘ecstatic truth’ in this strange retelling of the Brad Macallam story – a dysfunctional spoilt son driven to slay his elderly mother with a saber.
The film begins with police (a strangely subdued William Dafoe performance) arriving at the Macallam’s residence where Brad (Michael Shannon) has holed himself up in the family home with a couple of hostages having murdered his mother. Soon Brad’s girlfriend (Chloe Sevigny) and theatre director (a brilliant Udo Kier) arrive on the scene and Brad’s story begins to unfold.
Flitting between the present to the recent past via flashbacks (as seen by several people but portrayed through one common interpretation) a picture soon emerges of a man at odds with the world (or possibly the world in stark opposition to him) living with an overbearing mother (Twin Peaks’ Grace Zabriskie) who thinks it appropriate to enter his son’s room without knocking to offer him and his girlfriend a glass of wine. If the pressures of an awkward family life aren’t enough, the total inability to fit in with ‘reality’ is somewhat hampered by cohabitating with a pair of flamingos who perfectly the compliment the pink walls and furniture which run riot over a home that’s been abducted from David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.
The reliably Herzogian title My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done shares a passing resemblance with films like Dog Day Afternoon where hostage takers, embroiled in a hopeless situation, become tragic anti-heroes, the victims of their own mania. Herzog doesn’t attempt any concrete explanation for why Brad commits his hideous act but tries instead to give us a non-judgemental glimpse into a world seen through his eyes and according to his logic.
David Lynch helped produce this project but his involvement feels heavier than the credit initially suggests. In the rehearsal scenes for Brad’s play, the lighting and camerawork are unmistakeably Lynchian: a dark, sinister aura permeating celluloid. One can fairly assume that Herzog intended these scenes as a homage to the Eraserhead director and to witness the hybrid of two such incredible artists is nothing short of thrilling. Then there are the usual Herzogian obsessions: digs at new age hippies who travel to seek ‘enlightenment’; a midget juxtaposed with an unusually tiny horse; man existing alongside nature; the theme of individuals with a unique vision who are driven to commit extreme acts.
Unfortunately the film fails in its story rather than the way it has been told (barring some appalling editing and tacky camera tracking to insinuate travelling backwards in time). Brad Macallam comes across as just another sociopath who rambles on about God’s face appearing on cereal packets and corridors being ‘tunnels of time’. Despite the material being treated in a refreshingly non-hysterical manner and having plenty of the characteristic flourishes that make both Lynch and Herzog such timelessly brilliant artists, the film still manages to fall somewhat flat, hampered by the over-familiarity of its subject. My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done is far from perfect but there are rich enough rewards to still make it a worthwhile experience.