In the diverse and shifting filmography of Werner Herzog, insanity builds slowly out of the small but potent confrontations between man and his environment, an almost organic evolution of unflinching power and unease. Traces of extreme crazy engulf Herzog’s characters until there is no other escape but spiritual death, and even then the director pockmarks their lost souls with moral ambiguity. From the arrogant ramblings of Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) aboard the raft overrun with spider monkeys in Aguirre, The Wrath of God, to the animalistic hallucinations of Nic Cage’s Terrence McDonough imagining iguanas sitting fish-eyed amidst a bloody crime scene in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Herzog’s narratives taint the natural order of things to directly engage contradictions of society and spirituality. The results are usually riddled with problematic assertions about humanity and religion, but always fascinating in scope and purpose.
Herzog’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done continues this ambitious thematic motif, re-imagining the baffling true story of scholar/actor Mark Yavorsky, who in 1979 murdered his mother with a three-foot saber, emulating his role in The Oresteia. Herzog and scriptwriter Herbert Golder take the bizarre San Diego murder and spin it into the fictionalized story of Brad McCullum (Michael Shannon), a similarly perplexed young man who commits the heinous crime, then holds up in his mother’s (Grace Zabriskie) mind-numbingly pink suburban house while a detective (Willem Dafoe) pieces the suspect’s puzzling life together. Herzog peels away Brad’s tormented state of mind through a foggy yellow haze of tangential flashbacks and fantasy sequences, using interviews with McCallum’s girlfriend Ingrid (Chloë Sevigny) and theater director friend Lee (Udo Kier) to construct a problematic timeline. It’s a gap-riddled chronology that ends up creating more questions than it answers. While the characters try and understand Brad’s motives for going batshit crazy, Herzog slyly examines the small transitions of his arc from devoted son to obsessive delusional, calmly putting his actions into a warped perspective defined by extreme proselytizing and long bouts of depression.
The epicenter for Brad’s shift traces back to an ill-fated rafting trip in Peru, where the young man scorns his hippie friends in favor of the mystical mountains and jungles of Machu Picchu. Brad finds purpose here, and Herzog frames him underneath canopies of foliage, then below a gigantic rock face, calling to mind compositions from the director’s earlier Peruvian-set films like Aguirre. “I want to stunt my inner growth,” Brad softly muses, staring into the distance with a piercing line of sight familiar to dazed Herzogian protagonists. Brad’s central rift with reality never obtains a source, but these haunting moments transmit on an instinctual level via sweeping musical chords and methodical camera setups, ending with the first of many straight-on shots of Brad looking directly at the camera atop an epic mountainside. Herzog’s distrusting camera spins around him 360?, swooping like an invisible phantasm demanding attention from a damned sinner. Herzog begins a trend of confrontational aesthetics in the jungle, a place where’s he’s always been most comfortable, then jumps this extreme and confounding vision of insanity Stateside using Brad as a dying host.
From here, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done takes on a call-and-response structure—Brad spewing cryptic language and sounds from his unseen vantage point in the house while the outside world attempts to correlate his madness into a plausible explanation. At one point Brad screams he “has no other use for God,” only to push a cylinder of oatmeal out the driveway door. Not surprisingly, Dafoe’s detective admits, “It’s all a little confusing.” Herzog relishes the strangeness, ingraining insanity into the fabric of each scene. Brad’s specific case is littered with repressed warning signs, revealing his plight as something altogether personal, baffling, and never-ending. Shannon’s performance taps into this unsettling relationship between shifting ideology and conflicted physicality, highlighting the uncomfortable interactions between a human chameleon and his family members who grow more alien with each passing day. Shannon’s eyes burn with passion and panic, and the root of these feelings lies buried beneath an anguish transcribed through lines like, “Some people act a role, other’s play a part,” pleas from a man attempting to construct his own epic adventure from the loose marbles in his head. But Shannon’s performance avoids cliché, and Brad’s quiet internal determination balances out his most strident outbursts.
Herzog’s riveting flurries of visual and audible stylistics set My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done apart from his other recent films on modern-day insanity. The most stirring of these comes in a three shot of Brad, his mother, and Ingrid sitting at the dinner table about to consume a massive bowl of Jell-O. In mid-motion, the actors freeze, their bodies caught in a spider’s web of artifice, their imperfections and contradictions allowed to settle into the grain of the frame for maximum impact. With this one shot, Herzog confronts Brad’s cinematic situation in a theatrical sense, challenging the viewer to see past the surface and into his claustrophobic longing. Herzog repeats this visual motif throughout, most notably in a dynamic moment shared between Brad, his uncle Ted (Brad Dourif), and a tuxedoed dwarf staring directly at the camera in the woods. The moment definitely reminds of producer David Lynch’s heightened canon of work, but the intent is all Herzog, as the shot pushes Brad’s breaking psyche onto the audience in slow, methodical doses of impenetrable confrontation.
Despite its central character inhabiting nearly every scene, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done becomes more about other people’s interpretations of Brad rather than the man himself. This approach fits considering Herzog and Golder’s historical revisionism of Yavorsky’s case, yet leaves so much character development and reasoning in the dark. When Brad and Ingrid sit in a Mexican hotel room late in the film, dipping a light bulb into a circle of reading glasses, the image conveys a confined sense of loss rather than explanation, a conflated vision of interior heartache and panic. “This is my way of bringing heaven to Earth,” Brad says, alienating Ingrid’s perception of him even more. For Herzog, the police, Ingrid, and probably his mother, Brad grows into more of an enigma with each passing frame. It’s an inverted arc that makes his mother’s final screams of surprise all the more bewildering. In this sense, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done becomes a requiem for the plausible understanding of an implausible mental break, and Herzog disavows “realistic” clinical answers for the deafening cinematic silence of a man torn apart by his own uncertainty.
Purposefully shrouded in a cloudy haze for much of its running time, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done never attains the striking lushness of Herzog’s most lyrical films. In fact, the film is downright ugly at times, suffering from an overwhelming yellow tint that is more due to the cinematography than the transfer. The few scenes shot in Peru gain an epic resonance, and provide a window into Herzog’s dichotomy between the endless possibility of the jungle and the contained, cramped vision of modern-day America. The sound design and music cues are consistently adequate, even though much of Michael Shannon’s dialogue is muttered at low volumes.
The star of the disc is Ramin Bahrani’s short film Plastic Bag, a stunning parable narrated by Herzog himself about a plastic bag drifting through an uncaring world. This 18-minute eulogy for purpose in a time consumed by lethargy manages to combine haunting cinematography, music, and the texture of Herzog’s voice into a singular cinematic poem. The "Interview" special is actually a 30-minute feature about Herzog and scribe Herb Golder’s experiences reinventing Yavorksy’s fantastic true story into a cinematic narrative. The interviews help connect the filmmaker’s ambitious intent with the strange final product. The commentary between Herzog, Golder, and producer Eric Bassett often volleys back and forth between insightful and meandering, but what else would you expect from the filmmakers behind such a loony vision of insanity.
A clash between mental deterioration and confrontational cinema, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done lunges into the fragmented abyss of a murderous lost soul attempting to craft his own personalized religious awakening.