Following so hot on the heels of “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” that the latter’s shoe leather will be scuffed, Werner Herzog’s “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done,” unspooled in Venice as a surprise film, actually repped the lesser surprise, given “Lieutenant’s” unexpectedly friendly Lido reception. Teeming with quirky references to Herzog’s oeuvre, “My Son” will feel like familiar territory for the helmer’s fans, but that doesn’t make it a good film. Though fitfully fascinating, this account of a deranged matricide never gels and will struggle even harder than “Rescue Dawn” to find an aud.
Billed as “inspired by a true story,” the plot recounts the lead-up to a crime both bizarre and banal, making for something of a shaggy-dog story whose bark is more interesting than its bite. Main action is interspersed with lots of wacky, hardly necessary but occasionally amusing digressions, such as an inexplicable visit to what looks like Inner Mongolia; a trip to the Peruvian wilds that visually evokes Herzog’s Latin American-set classics “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” and “Fitzcarraldo”; and a visit to an ostrich farm run by a deranged character played by “The Wild Blue Yonder’s” Brad Dourif. If “My Son” were an album, it would be a concert of Herzog singing a collection of his reworked B-sides, live and slightly off-key.
The story proper opens with San Diego homicide detective Hank Havenhurst (Willem Dafoe) arriving at a suburban manse to investigate the murder of Mrs. McCullum (Grace Zabriskie). The elderly matron was skewered with a sword by her own son, Brad (Michael Shannon), in the home of her neighbors (Irma P. Hall, Loretta Devine), witnesses to the event.
Havenhurst hasn’t got far to go to look for Brad: He’s holed up in his own house across the street with a shotgun and two hostages, whose identities are only revealed in the last reel.
Police surround the house to wait it out. Brad’s g.f., Ingrid (Chloe Sevigny), arrives on the scene and tells Havenhurst about the slow unraveling of Brad’s mind, beginning with a misbegotten trip to Peru, when he started hearing voices in his head. The testimony of legit helmer Lee Meyers (Udo Kier) further fills out the story, as he explains how Brad started overidentifying with his role as the mother-slaying Orestes in a stage production of “The Furies,” while at home, he struggled to separate himself from his over-protective, emotionally smothering mom.
Even the laziest armchair critic couldn’t fail to spot how Brad reps but the latest in a long line of Herzog protagonists a few sandwiches shy of a picnic, from nearly every character Klaus Kinski played for the helmer through the many eccentrics featured in his docus, right up to Timothy Treadwell in “Grizzly Man.” However, despite the innate charisma Shannon, with his Andean-range-long stare, brings to the role, common-or-garden schizophrenic Brad McCullum simply isn’t all that interesting. (Although one rather warms to him when he channels Herzog with an anti-hippie rant — “Stop meditating! Come up with a coherent argument!” — in the Peruvian interlude.)
Pic’s other characters are not a particularly compelling bunch, which is even more disappointing given that they’re played by some pretty big names. Dafoe, Sevigny and Kier seem to be competing to see who can give the most arch, knowingly flat perf, putting invisible air quotes around their renditions of “normal” suburbanites. David Lynch regular Zabriskie (“Inland Empire”), on the other hand, hams it up royally, particularly in a scene in which she smiles creepily at Brad and Ingrid for what seems like a full minute of screen time.
In fact, at times the pic feels like a joshing, good-natured parody of a Lynch movie, given the big deal made of coffee in one scene, the use of spooky underlighting and the comical, nonsensical appearance of a person of restricted growth (Verne Troyer). Of course, Herzog arguably got there first with the creepy little people in “Even Dwarfs Started Small.” In any event, Lynch is definitely in on the joke; he exec produced the pic, which is billed as “a David Lynch presentation.”
Sound and color correction were a little dodgy in digital projection, although Herzog’s regular lenser, Peter Zeitlinger, turns in fluent camerawork as ever, having switched to a digital format after a long career in 35mm. Ernst Reijseger’s woozy, dreamy music sounds as lovely here as the stuff did he for “The Wild Blue Yonder”; the score is often completely at odds with what’s unfolding onscreen, but it’s hardly the only thing here that’s off-kilter.