Son, shining: Werner Herzog's My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done opens at the Castro.

Herzog's Unexpected 'My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done'

Dennis Harvey February 19, 2010

Werner Herzog has spent an entire career reaching wildly beyond the cinematic norm. His poetic, frequently transcendent narrative features have encompassed a parabolic society of little people (1970’s Even Dwarves Started Small), an adult wild child (Each Man for Himself and God Against All), putting his entire cast under hypnosis (Heart of Glass). Plus various permutations of Klaus Kinski, the brilliant, impossible actor Herzog showcased from 1972’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God through 1982’s Fitzcarraldo (on which Kinski replaced an ailing Jason Robards). The tortuous relationship between director and late subject—death threats included—was captured by Herzog’s My Best Fiend, one of his many great, eccentric documentaries.

Having circled the globe from Kinski to Kuwait oil fires and Antarctica, we’ve grown to expect the bizarre and exotic from Herzog. Ergo nothing could have been a bigger shock than last year’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans—a remake of sorts and corrupt-cop thriller. Yes, it had some characteristically surreal, grotesquely comic touches to remind you that this was no mere Training Day knockoff. But within the context of this career, the strangest this about Lieutenant was how strange it wasn’t.

The same is somewhat true of his latest, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, which opens at the Castro on Friday. This would be a pretty oddball venture for just about any other director. But with its comfortable U.S. suburban setting, flashback structure and mystery-suspense framework, by Herzogian standards it’s almost mainstream-conventional.

I said almost. A big almost, in fact.

Its title a Biblical quote, My Son is based on an actual case in San Diego (where the film was shot) over 30 years ago. In 1979 Mark Yarovsky, an impressive young basketball player, poet and graduate student major in drama, killed his mother by sword—just like Orestes, the matricidal Greek protagonist he’d been rehearsing for a stage production until his increasingly psychotic behavior forced him to drop out.

He claimed he’d committed the murder to “save (mom) from a nuclear holocaust.” Found not guilty by reason of insanity, he spent many years in institutions before being released, and had numerous conversations with co-scenarist Herbert Golder (plus one with Herzog that unnerved the latter) prior to his 2003 death. From Golder’s conception to shooting, the project had taken 15 years to realize.

Herzog’s film concerns itself primarily with the immediate aftermath to Yarovsky’s crime, in which—at least according to the movie, which takes some liberties with fact—a small army of police waited outside the house he’d shared with ma and two pet flamingoes. Meanwhile the armed man inside (with possible hostages) kept silent or babbled occasional nonsense. Occasionally he demanded delivery pizza.

Here Yarovsky is “Brad McCullum,” played by Michael Shannon, who has in a short period become the go-to American actor for wack-job roles (Bug, Revolutionary Road, The Missing Person, as Kim Fowley in the forthcoming Runaways). Here he’s so obviously off his nut from the start—even in flashback scenes—that we don’t really get any sense of what “Brad” was like before his sanity eroded. Nor can we quite buy that his very normal girlfriend Ingrid (Chloe Sevigny, sporting that uncomfortable look that suggests an actor doesn’t quite know what the director wants) is suddenly surprised and alarmed by his behavior. What did she see him in the first place?

We can totally buy, however, that Brad is the apparent only child of lone parent Mrs. McCallum, as played by Grace Zabriskie—an actress whose longtime association with David Lynch (whose company produced this movie) has typed her as a Queen of Weird. In early scenes here, mom repeatedly, creepily interrupts junior and girlfriend’s privacy. Zabriskie does so little in these moments, yet seems so alarmingly out there you wouldn’t be surprised if she were offering them chainsaw surgery rather than home-made cookies.

Likewise, Herzog casts two of the actors most adored by genre cultists in major support roles. Udo Kier (Andy Warhol’s Dracula et al.) gets an atypical nice-guy role as Brad’s concerned stage director, while horror perennial Brad Dourif (who played “The Alien” in Werner’s unclassifiable The Wild Blue Yonder) is Uncle Ted, a raging ostrich farmer, racist and homophobe from whom Brad borrows the ill-fated sword.

My Son’s flashbacks offer highlights from our protagonist’s recent descent into madness. He’d come back “changed” from a Peruvian whitewater rafting trip he’d had a bad feeling about, backing out at the last minute—and the friends who went ahead with it all drowned. Since then he’d insisted people call him “Farouk,” followed instructions from a mysterious “inner voice,” and seemed to think God dwelt in a kitchen canister of Quaker Oats. (Ah, shades of Christopher Meloni and his all-powerful can of vegetables in Wet Hot American Summer!) He became prone to baffling statements like (during a casual park stroll) “Did you see that, Ingrid? The whole world almost stopped.”

Herzog adds his own array of disorientation tactics to this tale, from the soundtrack’s very idiosyncratic musical choices to moments in which the cast is “freeze-framed” in a sense, with since the actors trying to stay very still, wobbling a bit as one does under such circumstances.

Assessments based on whether My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done serves its real-life subject faithfully are as beside the point as a thumbs-up/thumbs-down would be in regard to this film. This is simply A Werner Herzog Joint, to be enjoyed, evaluated and puzzled over only by the unique standards of that cinematic species.

Herzog is perpetually full of surprises. It could be that his current role—as a creator of American entertainments not so far off the beaten path on their surface, but skewed in nearly every detail—is as close to populism as he’ll ever get. Bad Lieutenant and My Son are in a way in-jokes about audience expectations. Their narrative cores lead us to anticipate regular action, violence, suspense, psychological insight. Instead we get the arrhythmic idiosyncrasies of a filmmaker whose impulses remain as delightfully inscrutable as ever. What fan would want it any other way?