Werner Herzog is not, in the best of times, a director who especially cares if you (yes, you personally) particularly like what he's doing in a given movie or not. Which means that when he goes full-bore and makes a film that seems to spend its entire running time ensconced firmly in his own head, we're talking about a seriously unapologetic explosion of self-indulgence.
Even the very title of My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (co-written by Herzog and his sometime assistant director Herbert Golder) sets us up for something intensely disconnected from the viewer's own pleasure; leastwise, it doesn't strike me that you'd call a movie My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (good lord, even a question mark would make it more palatable) if you had the remotest desire that any paying audience anywhere in the world would be actively interested in watching it. And the movie bears that out: this is Herzog pursuing ideas that fascinate him almost without recourse to whether or not they "work" according to any classical sense of film grammar. For we committed Herzog enthusiasts, that idea has its own kind of sick appeal, and I certainly found My Son, My Son to be wildly interesting, almost too interesting to handle. At the same time, even at 91 minutes there's a lot of movie going on, and the whole thing is chaotic and a touch mind-numbing. All things considered, the director's other recent crime picture with a godawful name, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans, is probably more successful; it's a hell of a lot more straightforward, at any rate.
My Son, My Son starts with a true crime, and then makes up almost all of the details: Brad McCullum (Michael Shannon) has killed his mother with a sword, and San Diego police detective Hank Havenhurst (Willem Dafoe) is on the scene, trying to figure out the wheres and whys, with his partner Vargas (Michael Peña). While Brad is shut up in his and his mother's garishly decorated house, Havenhurst interviews the two best witnesses to the suspect's deranged state that he's got: Brad's girlfriend Ingrid (Chloë Sevigny), and Lee Meyers (Udo Kier), who was directing the community theater adaptation of a Greek tragedy that Brad had been acting in until shortly before he snapped.
Or, the one-sentence version of the story: a detective sits in a van and interviews two character witnesses. That's pretty much it, so anyone who accidentally stumbles across My Son, My Son hoping for a legitimate true-crime thriller will walk out furiously disappointed. Or religiously inspired. It's hard to say which; it's always hard to say with Werner Herzog.
I'd love to say that the film is secretive and twisty and strange, but actually it's pretty simple to describe what it "is": a study of a man who went crazy, and an inquiry into how he got there. The second part is also pretty clear, if you know your Herzog: Brad had a racist uncle (Brad Dourif) who raised giant chickens, and shortly before he went nuts, he spent some time in the Peruvian jungle. Chickens and jungles are of course two of the director's least-favorite things in the world; I suspect that by putting those elements into his scenario, he was trying to short-circuit what could otherwise be the film's big mystery, about why Brad went insane. Why is right there; let us instead just look at the how. Tellingly, Brad's final, murderous insanity is triggered when his pseudo-religious ravings run up against his time spent in the tragic play, a setting where he's already being encouraged to submerge his own personality and identity - it strikes me that Brad probably reminded Herzog of Klaus Kinski, the infamously psychotic actor with whom the director shared his most nightmarish, creatively inspired sets. Since Herzog has already made it clear that he finds the mere fact of watching Kinski's insanity to be compelling (e.g. the documentary My Best Fiend), I imagine that his approach to My Son, My Son was about the same: let's just look at Brad McCullum in all his glorious, unhinged craziness.
Now, we can bicker and argue as to whether watching a movie about a crazy person being crazy makes for a fun night at the movies. At any rate, The Bad Lieutenant covered awfully similar ground, and in that film, there was some actual dramatic point to it; I can tell you what I think that film "means", in a way that I absolutely cannot do with My Son, My Son. Does that make the newer film a pointless waste? Maybe - certainly yes, if you watch it and don't find it compelling. All that Herzog is doing is the only thing he ever openly sets out to do, which is create unique moments and watch as a human mind breaks down. Like I said, I don't think he cares in the slightest if you or I "like" his film. He just wants to make sure that we get walloped by it, and that's the sort of thing you can't talk about using review-type language. I can certainly break down all the mechanical things in the movie, and why I thought they worked as well as they did: the long takes ending in awkward freeze-frames, the comically stilted dialogue, the fascinating geometry of a can of oats rolling down a driveway. But I cannot tell you if you will be affected by them like I was. That is the joy and the frustration of art, when practiced by somebody who hates rules just for the sake of it.
Things that I can say: Michael Shannon's performance as Brad is a godsend, the best film performance that this great, under-used character actor has ever given us; it is carefully, weirdly attuned to the physical space and other characters around him, so that he always seems the most organic part of any scene and at the same time completely alien in every context. Nicolas Cage's performance as the crazy cop in The Bad Lieutenant was showier and perhaps more dangerous, but Shannon is infinitely more discomfiting and upsetting; since the best way to compare the two films is to call My Son, My Son more discomfiting and upsetting, this distinction between the actors seems just.
The film also plays around with the iconography of its executive producer, David Lynch; he apparently exerted no influence over Herzog whatsoever, and yet the director studs in a great number of Lynchian moments and Lynchian shots; he even cast Grace Zabriskie, one of the key members of the Lynch Stock Company, as Brad's mother. I'd never call My Son, My Son, a Lynch film directed by Herzog, or any such nonsense; but it is a Herzog film that liberally quotes from Lynch, and this is not, I think, to its credit. One of the most famous of all the endlessly quotable German's utterances is his discourse on finding new and original images; and for the most part, his career has been a good-faith effort to create as many new images as he can. Cribbing from Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart is entirely contrary to that mission.
But still: My Son, My Son is still a movie that nobody else could have made, and nobody else would have wanted to make. Which may or may not be a good thing; but the film unquestionably has the merit of being wildly unconventional, and even the viewer who is wildly turned-off by the film can't argue in faith that it's dull. Which maybe was the point all along. Anyway, I liked the hell out of it.