DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: TIFF 2009: My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?

Thursday, 10 September 2009

TIFF 2009: My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? (2009) dir. Werner Herzog
Starring: Michael Shannon, Chloë Sevigny, Willem Dafoe, Udo Kier


Guest review by Reece Crothers

Many seasoned directors use the clout they accumulate over their careers to help emerging filmmakers realize their first films, or to make the jump from indies and foreign films to studio pictures, lending the "So-and-So Presents stamp" as a sort of formal endorsement. Spielberg, Coppola, Scorsese, they all do it. Most recently Peter Jackson produced Neill Blomkamp's "District 9", and before the trailer hit, when there was little more than the clever "Humans only" marketing campaign to arouse the audience's curiosity, Jackson's name served as assurance, a guarantee of quality. What is far less common is the joining of two, already established heavyweight directors. When Martin Scorsese produced Spike Lee's "Clockers" from a script by frequent Scorsese collaborator Richard Price ("The Color of Money", "New York Stories"), Lee was hardly a novice, with half a dozen studio pictures already under his belt, and the result was decidedly half-Lee, half-Scorsese. It's as if one artist were giving the other permission to borrow his language, his themes, even his actors.

Now David Lynch and Werner Herzog have joined forces, cinema's two foremost authorities on the absurd, each one a giant among his own fan base, both of whom have managed to cross over into mainstream cinema without surrendering their odd-ball visions (Lynch is only getting more cryptic with each film) and the result is as weird, hilarious, riveting, terrifying and frustrating as their combined filmographies would suggest. How much is Lynch and how much is Herzog is hard to say, but the cocktail is intoxicating. The music, the experimental use of tableau vivant, which Herzog gleefully violates by allowing the actors to blink while holding their poses, staring straight into the camera, the harsh sunlight bleaching the San Diego landscape, all contribute to a dreamy, altered state of consciousness that makes ‘Twin Peaks’ seem a little more ordinary.

After a beautiful static shot of a train passing under a bold blue sky, the story begins with a humorous back and forth exchange between Willem Dafoe and Michael Pena as detectives on their way to a brutal crime scene. The actors contribute worthy additions to the rich collection of memorable movie cop duos from recent years such as Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards in David Fincher's "Zodiac" (animal crackers anyone?) or Denzel Washington and Chiwetel Ejiofor in Lee's "Inside Man" (also featuring Dafoe as a cop). Like those other pictures, the cops here are decent, hard-working, compassionate civil servants, not super-cops, and while providing comic relief they also serve as the humane counterpoint to brutal violence and senseless tragedy. We empathize with them and we distance ourselves from the violence. Dafoe and Pena's characters keep the film grounded in reality. Pena is especially funny as an overzealous but not entirely talented young officer, eager to participate, while his partner handles the emerging chaos surrounding the pink flamigo house in suburban San Diego where Michael Shannon, playing the mentally unstable Brad, has taken hostages and apparently murdered his mother with a sword.

The details of the murder are recounted in grisly detail by the detectives and the witnesses but Herzog has wisely kept the violence off-screen, a welcome choice after the scalping in "Inglourious Basterds", the cheek-biting in "Watchmen: The Directors Cut" or nearly everything in "Crank 2". The truth is censorship is dead, the ratings system an anachronistic joke, and until they find a way to regulate the internet, images of any and every act of depravity imaginable are only a few mouse clicks away and restraint is in short supply. Herzog is weird, but he has class.

Michael Shannon it has to be said, is the most interesting American character actor to emerge in many years. He has that quality of making weird compulsively watchable, like Crispin Glover ("Back to the Future", "River's Edge") in his youth, or the late, great, 70's icon John Cazale ("Dog Day Afternoon", "The Godfather Saga") before them. In 2007's "Shotgun Stories" (a near-masterpiece overlooked in a year unusually crowded with great films), Shannon proved he could be menacing while still playing the hero. As much as I love Lynch and Herzog, Shannon is the reason I came to "My Son, My Son..." and I was a little disappointed. I have a feeling this has to do with how he was directed, but I wasn't on set so it's only a theory, but instead of using his inherent weirdness, as was on display in his work on William Friedkin's "Bug", "Shotgun Stories", and his Oscar-nominated performance in "Revolutionary Road", Herzog also has him playing weird and it takes a while to acclimatize to the performance. Around the half-way point I was so drawn in to the story that I accepted it, only pausing when Chloe Sevigny, as Brad's fiancee, shows up. She is so sweet and normal, that I couldn't understand why she was with him. This is "inspired by a true story", we are told in the opening credits, and it's hard to believe Brad wouldn't have gotten himself locked up with his psycho behavior long before he was ever able to draw the sword.

There is of course no such thing as a true story. What does "Inspired by" really mean? This is an old argument, but an important one. Whether or not a "true story" is even possible is an argument for another time, but in an era when writers are threatened to annotate their imaginations and inspirations to death by Errors & Omissions insurance nonsense, we have to wonder what those promises of "true", "inspired by", or "based on" really give us. Are we supposed to care more because it supposedly really happened? Would "Casablanca" be any better if there was a real Rick & Ilsa? Would you rather read a biography of Hamlet than Shakespeare's play? Would that somehow improve the drama of it? In the end it doesn't matter how much Shannon's Brad resembles the real-life Brad or if there even was a real-life Brad. He doesn't get locked up before the murder, and the character haunts and lingers long after both the deed and the picture are over.

True or not, the story is fascinating. Why did Brad have the sword in the first place? Because he needed it for a play. What was his role in the play? A man who kills his mother. And the director of the play? Udo Kier!! (Remember his scenes in "My Own Private Idaho"?) The parallels between the play and the murder are chilling, as is the revelation of just how long Brad might have been planning the murder, alluding to it cryptically in rehearsals. This is the most effective section of the film, where Brad totally descends into his own schizophrenic nightmare (the word "schizophrenia" is never heard at any time in the film). As harrowing as Brad's journey is, it's often also very funny. The trip to get the sword introduces us to a wonderful supporting bit from Brad Dourif as an insane, Ostrich-farming bigot. Dourif is incredible. Check him out in the recently issued Criterion DVD of John Huston's "Wise Blood", or in "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" and you can forgive all the "Child's Play" sequels.

It's fun to see Herzog venture into genre storytelling when you consider his earlier, idiosyncratic "art films' and documentaries, and unlike his recent "Rescue Dawn", his strange sensibilities are fully intact. Perhaps protected and encouraged by another artist, especially on of David Lynch's stature, he is free to be himself. I can't wait to see how he fares with producer Edward R. Pressman ("Badlands", "Wall Street", "The Crow") for the "Bad Lieutenant" revamp, also playing TIFF this year. More on that to come.

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