You go in to a movie directed by Werner Herzog and produced by David Lynch with a certain expectation of Weird. You come out thinking, “What just happened here?” You struggle with your own feelings – did you enjoy the film? Is that even a possible outcome here? Maybe it’s just about levels of being unnerved? We’re not in Kansas anymore.
The story is simple enough. Brad McCullum (Michael Shannon – in serious danger of being typecast) is an actor who has become so obsessed with Elektra that he has murdered his over-protective mother. His girlfriend knew he was becoming increasingly unhinged, but the fact that she was with him at all, given his weird emotional tics, shows that she’s no judge of character. But then again, a Herzog film is often peopled with characters who are weird without being sinister – without there being a narrative purpose to it. Udo Kier’s theatre director is certainly strange and bizarre and unnerving, but he’s not actually menacing. The same applies to Willem Defoe’s detective, who appears to be immune to the weirdness that engulfs him, and this immunity makes him as strange as the man he’s staking out. At let’s not even discuss the craziest character of all – Brad’s insane ostrich-farming Uncle Ted (Brad Dourif). It’s as though Herzog is making a point about the inherent oddity of suburban life. Yes, he’s saying, this shit may seem unutterably weird to you viewers, but if you look beyond those white picket fences, this is really the level of oddity on which we’re operating. And that brings us firmly into the realm of David Lynch.
And so you end up with a film that combines both Herzogian and Lynchian strangeness. An obsession with mutated chickens; aggressive ostriches; a random interlude in Peru; and endless tableaux vivants; put us firmly in Herzog territory. The casting of the default-crazy Grace Zabriskie; the inclusion of a milk-sop girlfriend; and the fetishisation of a food; put us firmly in Lynch territory.
How can you respond to a movie in which the plot is propelled by a murder and an abduction, but basically nothing happens? In which every crazy character is trumped by another? This movie isn’t so much an empathetic experience as a spectacle. I still can’t tell you if I enjoyed it. But I know I won’t forget it in a hurry.
Additional tags: Ernst Reijseger, Loretta Devine, Brad Dourif
MY SON, MY SON, WHAT HAVE YE DONE? played Venice and Toronto 2009 and was released in Portugal earlier this year. It is currently on release in the UK and Italy and was released on DVD in the US last week.