Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Rating (out of 5): ***½
If you thought Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans was an odd duck, just wait until you see this. Produced by David Lynch and directed by Herzog, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done plays like an unholy offspring of both maverick outsiders, filled with unsettling, dreamlike moments, but also plenty of dark laughs. It's apparently based on the story of a real-life killer, but the movie is about a disturbed man, Brad McCullum (Michael Shannon), who still lives with his creepy mother (Grace Zabriskie, a veteran of many David Lynch projects).
As the film begins, Brad has stabbed and killed her with an antique sword and then locked himself in his San Diego house with two "hostages." (The house is designed with a hideous pink flamingo motif.) Two homicide detectives (Willem Dafoe and Michael Peña) show up, and they interview Brad's fiancée (Chloë Sevigny). She tells some odd stories about him and we see flashbacks. In one of them, Brad refuses to go on a river-rafting trip in Peru where all his buddies were subsequently killed. A theatrical director (Udo Kier) also shows up and tells stories; Brad was in his production of Sophocles' Orestes, but was "let go." Other cast members include the great Irma P. Hall, and one of Herzog's current favorites, the eternally loony Brad Dourif, plus Gabriel Pimentel as a midget in a dream sequence.
Shannon (Revolutionary Road, Missing Person) is typically intense here, and Herzog comes up with some remarkable visuals to illustrate his madness, such as a comical coffee cup; a sculpture of eyeglasses; a box of oatmeal rolling down a driveway (the oatmeal was a detail from the real-life case). The rest of the cast seems halfway crazy too, as if they have all been invited to be as weird as they like, to mess with the audience a bit. In some of Lynch's weaker movies, this weirdness permeates and transcends the fabric of the film, and it can be displacing. But Herzog mostly manages to hold it in place.
The main thing missing here is that Herzog almost always uses environment and location as an important part of his characters and films, from the jungles of Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo to the Alaska of Grizzly Man, and here he only gives San Diego a cursory once-over. It's there in the film, and its warm weather, suburbs and parks (with basketballs in trees) have a very vivid feel, but these things aren't particularly incorporated into or associated with Brad's madness. Additionally, this film just doesn't look as good as Herzog's best films. (Thankfully we have the Peru sequences to make up for it; Herzog is more at home in the jungle.) Regardless, the bulk of the movie has this great, fearless, crazy quality, and even some moments of brilliance and beauty. It's definitely in a class by itself.
First Look Studios has distributed the new DVD (no Blu-Ray) along with Absurda and Industrial Entertainment. Thankfully Herzog has supplied one of his memorable commentary tracks, here alongside writer Herbert Golder and producer Eric Bassett. There's also an 18-minute short film, "Plastic Bag," directed by Ramin Bahrani and narrated by Herzog; and an interview between Herzog and Golder, plus trailers for this and two other films.
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