Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Audacity of Man

(Werner Herzog, US, 2009, 35mm, 91 mins.)

I want to see my mother's feet dancing her to heaven. -- Brad Macallum (Michael Shannon)

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

The film takes place in Southern California, the story comes from an actual case, and the cast includes Willem Dafoe (Wild at Heart) and Grace Zabriskie (Inland Empire).

It may sound like a David Lynch picture, except it isn't. Through his Absurda banner, Lynch served as producer, while Werner Herzog directed (though Michael Shannon and Brad Dourif also appeared in Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans).

If Bad Lieutenant was Herzog's swamp noir, the San Diego-set My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? is his desert noir. In another Lynchian touch, two cops (Dafoe and Michael Peña) provide our entry into the story. Called to the scene of a crime, they meet a bystander (Shannon) who looks at them and utters, "Razzle dazzle" (the words printed on his coffee mug). They push past him to the lifeless body inside.

The killer failed to cover his tracks, and a sword lies in full view of the victim (Zab-
riskie). Neighbor Mrs. Roberts (Irma Hall, another Bad Lieutenant vet) claims that her son, Shannon's Brad Macallam, had something to do with it. Just before his fiancée, Ingrid (Chloë Sevigny), arrives, Herzog flashes back to Brad's days in Peru.

While Dafoe's Det. Havenhurst tries to get him to leave the house, to which he re-
turned and where he claims to have taken two hostages, Herzog continues to rifle through the days before Mrs. Macallam's murder and to Brad's time in South Amer-
ica. From the way Ingrid describes things, it sounds as if the actor was turning into a schizophrenic, since he became convinced he should only listen to his "inner voice."

The flashbacks, which lend the film the feel of a fifties melodrama, reveal other
problems, like the fact that Brad and Ingrid lived with Mrs. Macallam, who looks like
a warped version of Jane Wyman in All That Heaven Allows, in a flamingo-pink ranch house with flamingos in the backyard, and every manner of flamingo inside, from posters to lamps (there's a Twin Peaks vibe to these strangely-lit sequences).

The flashbacks continue: Brad's visit to his Uncle Ted's ostrich farm, a trip to Tijua-
na with Ingrid and another to Toronto with his mother, and his casting in Sophocles' famously matricidal Oresteia (Dourif plays the uncle, Udo Kier plays the director).

Combined with Ernst Reijseger's off-kilter score and Peter Zeitlinger's sun-bleached cinematography, it all exerts a certain queasy fascination, but My Son, My Son, much like those ostriches, never really takes flight. It's rarely as darkly humorous as Bad Lieutenant or as seductively suspenseful as one of Lynch's puzzle-box mysteries.

Furthermore, the acting has an intentionally flat quality that recalls home movies and soap operas, despite the talent involved. It's as if Herzog cooked the whole thing up in one peyote-filled night and shot it the next week. If Nicolas Cage's loopy lieuten-
ant was hilariously over-the-top, Shannon invests Brad with a more recessive quality, which gives his madman greater credibility--at the expense of entertainment value.

And yet...there's a scene in the woods with Shannon, Dourif, and a midget in a tuxedo that offers the sort of what-the-fuck magic that makes even the lesser films of Herzog and Lynch more interesting than most. Fortunately, there are enough of those moments, especially towards the end, to make My Son, My Son worthwhile, though not enough to make it the messed-up masterpiece it might have been.

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done opens at the Northwest Film Forum on Fri., 4/9. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. between Pike and Pine. For more information, please click here or call 206-829-7863. Images from the film talk and Absurda.

Update: due to popular demand, the film has been held over for an additional
week, 4/16-22 (7 and 9pm daily, except for Sat., on which it screens at 5pm).
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