‘My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done’ Inspires Genuine Head-Scratching

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CHICAGO – When David Lynch came to Chicago for an “Inland Empire” screening back in 2007, he offered memorable advice to a moviegoer baffled by his work. He said that his audience should meditate not on the “intellectual experience” provided by his films, but the emotional ideas that they conjure. Meditating on anything else would prove useless because, as Lynch put it, “If you meditate on buttermilk, you’ll end up going to the dairy.”

Such advice may prove useful to adventurous moviegoers eager to get their minds warped by “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done,” a truly bizarre experiment forged by two of our greatest living filmmakers. It was executive produced by Lynch and directed by Werner Herzog as a sort of riff on Lynch’s work, while also delving into his own trademark obsessions. It’s as much a work of free association filmmaking as Lynch’s “Empire,” using the basic scenario of a true-life crime as its jumping-off point for exploring the human psyche. Yet while “Empire” was anchored by the emotional reality of Laura Dern’s central performance, “My Son” is populated merely by impenetrable curiosities.

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?
My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?
Photo credit: Unified Pictures

The plot is loosely based on a 1979 matricide committed by 34-year-old Mark Yavorksy, a San Diego man who excelled in both sports (particularly basketball) and theatre. His unstable behavior caused him to get kicked out of a UCSD production of the Greek tragedy “Orestes,” in which Yavorsky was cast as a son who slays his mother to avenge his father’s death. The line separating reality from artifice may have become hopelessly blurred in his head on the day that he stabbed his mother to death with an antique sword. Herzog interviewed Yavorsky before his death, and it’s a shame that he didn’t simply make a documentary about him. The auteur’s “nonfiction” work over the last couple decades has often been far more compelling than his fictionalized narratives (I vastly prefer “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” over “Rescue Dawn”).

Instead, Herzog imposes his own themes and beliefs on Yavorsky’s story, resulting in a picture that somehow feels both derivative and perplexingly abstract. Herzog has always had a boundless interest in dissecting the minds of men spiraling into madness, yet his characters’ motivations have rarely felt as tacked on as they do in “My Son.” His version of Yavorksy, Brad McCullum (Michael Shannon), is yet another Herzogian basketcase whose descent into insanity has been caused by his mysterious experience in nature. On a trip to Peru (the infamous location of “Fitzcarraldo”), a voice inside McCullum’s head tells him not to join his friends on their doomed kayaking expedition. After they perish, McCullum becomes hypnotized by his inner voices, and returns to America a changed man.

Like Jack Nicholson in “The Shining,” Shannon is cuckoo from the get-go, and his incoherent ramblings quickly grow tiresome. His fiancé (Chloe Sevigny) harbors a dim-witted devotion to him that remains inexplicable; she’s as elusive as Timothy Treadwell’s girlfriend in “Grizzly Man.” The rest of the ensemble seems to have been cast merely on the basis of their cult status. Lynch fans will enjoy the appearance of “Wild at Heart” co-stars Willem Dafoe and Grace Zabriskie, who bears a striking resemblance to Udo Kier (also featured in the film).

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?
My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?
Photo credit: Unified Pictures

While Nicholas Cage hallucinated about iguanas in Herzog’s “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,” Shannon has visions of ostriches after visiting the ostrich farm run by his Uncle Ted (Brad Dourif). The farm scene is one of many moments in the film that inspires the type of dark, idiosyncratic laughter typified by Lynch and Herzog. Some lines are funny in and of themselves, such as when a crazed McCullum pulls up to a naval hospital and says, “I’d like to see the sick…in general.”

There are several self-conscious homages to Lynch’s work, in the form of tuxedoed dwarfs, oxygen masks and coffee-drinking cops. The bland suburban setting interrupted by shocking violence is so reminiscent of “Blue Velvet” and “Twin Peaks” that it practically feels like a satire. Yet there’s plenty to admire here, particularly the cinematography by Herzog’s longtime collaborator Peter Zeitlinger, and the brooding score by Ernst Reijseger. Herzog is somewhat successful at subtly depicting McCullum’s inner psyche, particularly when the universe appears to halt around him. Even the final shot is wonderful, though it’s a pity that it wasn’t attached to a better film.

It’s as if Herzog decided to try out Lynch’s method of transcendental meditation, and stitched together his fragments of supposed enlightenment. Die-hard devotees of both filmmakers will lap it up as expected, but what about everyone else? I suspect most moviegoers will leave the theater uttering Woody Allen’s classic “Annie Hall” punch line, “Right, well I have to go now, Werner, because I’m due back on planet Earth.”

‘My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done’ stars Michael Shannon, Chloe Sevigny, Udo Kier, Brad Dourif, Grace Zabriskie, Willem Dafoe, Michael Peña, Loretta Devine and Irma P. Hall. It was written by Herbert Golder and Werner Herzog and directed by Werner Herzog. It opened on April 9th, 2010 at the Music Box in Chicago and is still expanding around the country. It is not rated.

HollywoodChicago.com staff writer Matt Fagerholm

By MATT FAGERHOLM
Staff Writer
HollywoodChicago.com
matt@hollywoodchicago.com

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