The bottom half of Werner Herzog’s double-bill of cumbersomely titled, wacked-out police procedurals, the David Lynch-produced My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done is more controlled in its absurdism than Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, but it is easily the lesser work. One of the many supporting actors playing straight man to Nicolas Cage’s cyclonic clowning in the earlier film, Michael Shannon gets the scenery-chewing center stage here as Brad McCullum, a troubled stage actor introduced holed up in a San Diego bungalow moments after skewering his domineering mother (Grace Zabriskie) with an antique sword. While he taunts the SWAT team members surrounding the house, his girlfriend (Chloë Sevigny) and acting coach (Udo Kier) try to explain how he got there to a peculiarly cheery police detective (Willem Dafoe). A tale of whitewater rafting, Greek tragedies, ostrich farms, and pink flamingos follows.
As befits the work of a filmmaker long fascinated by tales of unstable visionaries, madness seems to have always welled within Brad, though it wasn’t until a trip to Peru that he was able to uncork and explore it, leading to an obsessive interest in playing the matricidal protagonist in a production of The Oresteia. The idea of an artist shaping his madness creatively is profoundly Herzogian, and My Son boasts a concentrated, evocative mise-en-scène that stylistically outclasses POCNO, which deliberately proceeded as network TV-style chunks stitched together by a galvanic performance. Yet the film’s Southern California is strenuously deadpan where POCNO’s New Orleans was organically hysterical, a disconnect between auteur and environment further hampered by the way Herzog, in a kooky-esoteric mood, has decided to people it with parodic nods to Lynch’s tropes (sudden bursts of profanity, promiscuous coffee-drinking, tuxedoed dwarves). An unsatisfying trifle, the film plays most intriguingly as a curious meeting between simpatico but ultimately incompatible artists, not unlike Dali painting his own version of Millet’s Angelus.