The apocalypse happened yesterday – in Werner Herzog’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, Brad McCullum (Michael Shannon) is living in its aftermath. Mr. Herzog’s obsession with the genius of madness has played an integral part in many of his films, with even his documentaries brining in a wide array of over-the-top, lunatic individuals (the man discovering cave openings with his nose in Cave of Forgotten Dreams). And with My Son, Mr. Herzog inverts typical notions of police standoff procedurals into something far more radical – you know that’s the case when Detective Hank Havenhurst (Willem Dafoe) matter- of- factly notes the madness of the situation and Brad here: He's claiming his name is Farouk, he shouts about God, and he tosses oatmeal at us. It's all a little confusing."
The narrative (an inadequate word to describe My Son’s goings-on) is framed as a true-to-life event. Brad McCullum hides in his home as he is surrounded by the authorities- led by Detective Havenhurst and Detective Vargas (Michael Pena). The crime? McCullum is accused of killing his mother. These details would arouse a certain reaction depending on who we associate with the whole project – someone like Ron Howard sitting in the director’s chair would make me avoid the film at all costs. But two names are involved here that I presume piques everyone’s interest in My Son– director Werner Herzog and producer David Lynch. Expectations are put into place, wherein conventional cinematic expectations are inverted, mutated, and skewed; something we haven’t seen is going to happen.
And that’s precisely what happens. The motive behind McCullum’s actions are based on his theatrical career, and in a way, inspired by Sophocles. Details and events are tossed every which way in hopes of making sense of it all. McCullum murdered his mother with a sword. An ostrich steals someone’s glasses. McCullum goes to Peru and whatever brewing sense of madness that is inside him is uncorked. Tales of McCullum’s past are recounted by his girlfriend, Ingrid (Chloë Sevigny) and his theater director, Lee (Udo Kier). What they amount to gives Detective Havenhurst very little to work with – the sense that it’s all a little confusing echoes throughout My Son.
The ambiguity and sense of utter disorientation works just as much in favor of the film as it does against it. There seems to be an honest effort to try and tell some sort of story here, but the weirdness involved almost exceeds my liking. And unlike some Mr. Herzog’s other efforts, there’s not enough from Shannon to anchor the whole film steady. Nicholas Cage in The Bad Lieutenant, Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Bruno S. in Strozek all brought the most intense levels of craziness to their roles– you sense that’s brewing inside Shannon, but it never quite gets there. It’s simply a case of not enough razzle dazzle in its lead performance to push this thing all the way.