A new film by German director extraordinaire Werner Herzog is always a special event. He may not make movies that fill multiplexes to the brim (his last film, Bad Lieutenant, was about as close as he's come that), but for my money he’s one of the most original and fascinating filmmakers out there, making films that perplex and captivate in equal measure.
It couldn’t be any more perfect – and long overdue – then that Herzog would team up with that other surreal filmmaker (the king of surreal filmmakers, some would say) David Lynch. Herzog handles directorial duties on My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, whilst Lynch acts as exec producer.
Working from a script he co-wrote with Herbert Golder, Herzog has created yet another peculiar and wholly fascinating film. For those who are used to Herzog’s style, his trademarks are still to be found here although wrapped in what may seem at first a more conventional package.
The story tells of a seemingly crazy man (Michael Shannon) who takes some people hostage in his house after apparently stabbing his mother to death in a house across the street. The police are outside trying to coax the man out, with the help of his fiancé (Chloe Sevigny) and old friend (Udo Kier).
The hostage scenes make up maybe half of the movie, with the rest made up of flashback scenes as relatives, friends, and acquaintances tell stories of what might have led the man to commit such acts.
Most of the fascination the film holds is down to its sheer peculiarity. This may have a regular old hostage-taking general plot but it’s far from conventional. The back and forth way Herzog chooses to tell the story is strange even when compared to other movies that do the same. Hardly any of the scenes seem to have any sort of real significance in furthering the plot but instead serve to take us into the psyche of an insane human being.
Playing that crazy person is Michael Shannon (who also starred in The Runaways, another film playing at EIFF 2010), who in my eyes is one of the great actors of our time. He’s one of those actors that you know there’s always something more going on behind those eyes, that’s he’s truly become the character he’s playing and always doing something to find quirks to make his performance that much more captivating.
Supporting him are the likes of Chloe Sevigny (who here is channeling some of her performance in HBO’s Big Love), Udo Kier (whose performance almost seems normal next to Shannon’s), Grace Zabriskie (almost as weird as she was in Lynch's most recent film, Inland Empire), and Brad Dourif (providing much of the film’s black humour). The weak links in the cast chain are Willem Dafoe and Michael Pena. Although neither is outright bad, the two of them, particularly Dafoe, feel out of place.
What holds My Son, My Son back from ranking up there with some of Herzog’s recent best work (such as Grizzly Man and Encounter at the End of the World) is the fact that it works best in parts as opposed to a cohesive whole. It’s less than the sum of its parts, as they say, and it often feels like it’s stretching for the scenes to work together.
Fans of Herzog won’t be disappointed with the film as there are plenty of his usual quirks and offbeat touches to be found. A prominent one here is the focus on animals, particularly ostriches and flamingos. It’s hard to explain how he utilizes scenes featuring these animals without seeing it for yourself (as it is with most of his films) but let’s just say it adds an extra layer of oddball humour to everything else.
So although My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done may be a lesser work of Herzog’s, it’s still as weird and interesting as anything he’s ever done. Boasting some fantastic performances (particularly from Shannon in the lead role) and a distinct flavor, I’d say it’s well worth seeking out. It’s not for everyone, that’s for sure, but those who like offbeat films will really dig this.