By Ezra Stead
My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, USA / Germany, 2009
Directed by Werner Herzog
Completing a triptych of unconventional horror films by directors not known for making this type of film, I have decided to make Werner Herzog’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done the subject of my final entry in my self-imposed Halloween Movie Month experiment. It’s an odd choice on which to go out, but that is fitting, as My Son is an extremely odd film, even for Herzog. To be honest, it’s kind of surprising that it’s taken me this long to see and write about the film, since it is the result of a dream collaboration between to of the weirdest filmmakers alive: co-writer/director Herzog and producer David Lynch. It is definitely not a horror movie in any traditional sense, though Herzog describes it on his official website as “a horror film without the blood, chainsaws and gore, but with a strange, anonymous fear creeping up in you.” Personally, I didn’t find it particularly frightening at all, but it is a rather fascinating portrait of increasing madness centered around a typically intense performance by the wild-eyed and always captivating Michael Shannon.
Though not a horror filmmaker by most definitions (though his first feature, 1977’s Eraserhead, comes close), I have long considered Lynch to be one of the absolute scariest filmmakers alive; Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), Lost Highway (1997) and Inland Empire (2006) in particular contain some of the most frightening moments I’ve ever seen onscreen, all the more terrifying because it is often unclear why I am so frightened. Likewise, Herzog is definitely not a horror filmmaker (though he did make one of my all-time favorite vampire movies with 1979’s Nosferatu the Vampyre), but he is a filmmaker who, like Lynch, creates a remarkably unstable atmosphere of dread and madness in many of his films, especially Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982). What is also often overlooked about the works of both Herzog and Lynch is how absurdly funny so much of their work is, and both of these qualities are on display in this extremely strange collaboration.
Based loosely on the true story of Mark Yavorsky, a University of San Diego student who stabbed his mother to death with an antique sword, My Son deviates wildly from the facts of the real case in order to creatively explore the madness that led him to this violent act. The breathtakingly gorgeous opening and closing shots both visually summarize one of the film’s major themes, that of the juxtaposition of nature with the man-made world, and this seems to be a source of the creeping insanity that overtakes its central character. Brad McCullum (Shannon), the Yavorsky surrogate of the film, begins to exhibit increasingly strange behavior after returning from a kayaking trip in Peru (one of many inventions created by Herzog and co-writer Herbert Golder) that killed all of his companions after Brad decided at the last minute to bow out, later claiming it was the voice of god that forestalled him. There is a sense that something out there in the jungle has crept in and haunted him ever since.
The film’s narrative begins after the murder of Brad’s mother (Lynch favorite Grace Zabriskie) has already occurred, and much of the story is told through disjointed flashbacks extrapolated from police interviews with people who know Brad, including Lee Myers (Udo Kier), the director of a production of a Greek tragedy also involving matricide in which Brad was the star, and his co-star and fiancee, Ingrid (Chloe Sevigny). The investigation is led by Detective Hank Havenhurst (Willem Dafoe in a very restrained performance, so as not to overshadow the crazy found elsewhere) and his partner Detective Vargas (Michael Pena), and with the help of Myers in particular, it leads in many unexpected directions. Among the most memorable of these is a trip to the ostrich farm of Brad’s racist, homophobic uncle Ted (Brad Dourif, a favorite of both Lynch and Herzog), as well as a flashback initiated by Ingrid in which we see Brad wandering through a hospital, demanding to visit “the sick, in general” in a sort of messianic haze.
Beautifully shot in stark, desaturated hues by Peter Zeitlinger on the popular Red One digital camera (Steven Soderbergh is its most frequent advocate), My Son can be considered a horror film in the same way that Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf (1968) was considered his only foray into the genre. Neither film is actually scary so much as they each present a very convincing portrait of the progression of insanity. This is hardly new territory for either Herzog, whose career has been built on the study of obsessives, paranoiacs and other travelers on the borders of coherent consciousness. Shannon likewise brings a crazy intensity to every role he plays, and his work here shows him to be an ideal replacement for the late, great Klaus Kinski, who undoubtedly would have been cast in the lead role if the film had been made during his lifetime of collaboration with Herzog. The tagline for My Son reads: “The mystery isn’t who. But why.” If the film indeed solves that mystery, the solution is not readily available upon a single viewing, at least not for me. Luckily, what it does is create a world so fascinating and singular, it would be worth multiple additional viewings over time, and I can’t imagine I would be especially disappointed if an answer never comes. It is better not to watch a film like this with solutions and answers in mind anyway; instead, just bask in the weirdness, as this pairing of legendary filmmakers undoubtedly intended.
Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’tGet.com. Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper and poet who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.
For more information, please contact EzraStead@MoviesIDidntGet.com.