What happens when Werner Herzog has a project and David Lynch says, “when can we start?” My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done is the result. Herzog directs and Lynch produces this non-linear look at insanity that is well acted and directed with an odd story based on fact. And yes, it is a bit weird, as both are known for; no let down there at all.Werner Herzog had been kicking this idea around for years before having the time and backing to get it onto film. The basic story is simple: guy goes crazy, gets really into Greek tragedy, and runs his mum through with a saber. That’s seriously the gist of the true aspect of this tale. Back in the late ‘70s a guy from San Diego, California, Mark Yavorsky did just that and served years in a mental ward for it. Co-screenwriter Herbert Golder thought this would make a great film, so he began his many interviews with Yavorsky that would span years before finally being joined by Herzog in their last interview in 1995. A script was soon written but sat on the self for years until Herzog met Lynch and the script was finally put into production and released in 2009.
The film moves away from the facts of the case very fast as the majority of the film is fiction and delivered in a way that Herzog described as "a horror film without the blood, chainsaws and gore, but with a strange, anonymous fear creeping up in you." That’s a good way to put it as he builds the suspense in a non-traditional way. In the first five minutes we know who the killer is but not why, which is what the film builds on, as goes the tag line, “The Mystery Isn’t Who, But Why.”As the film rolls on we are introduced to more characters and the roles they play in the drama. Of course, there’s our lead nut job and mama's boy Brad McCullum, played briliantly by Micheal Shannon; his overbearing mother, Lynch-regular Grace Zabriskie; and his devoted girlfriend (Chloe Sevigny). Rounded out the main players are Willem Defoe as Detective Hank Havenhurst (one more odd detective role for Defoe), the outstanding Udo Kier as theater director Lee Meyers, and Brad Dourif as McCullum’s weird ostrich-raising Uncle Ted.
The plot thickens as the story moves from Brad’s trip to Peru where he finally, for some reason, flip outs and sees the world in a new light to his return home where he freaks out his friends and family with his new insight and view of life. He gets the lead in a play, loses it, but continues to obsess over it, and the real sword he received from his uncle to use as a prop, which he carries all the time and becomes too close to. With sword in hand and more odd gestures and acts of insanity, he continues to further freak people out and becomes more reclusive as he loses more of his mind.Eventually he kills his mother in a neighbor's house and keeps police at bay while he holes up in his boyhood home with his two hostages. That’s how the story unfolds and brings us to the abrupt ending. The real story lies in the unraveling of Brad’s mind. We get certain glimpses of his past and some reveling moments of what he hopes his lasting impact will be. We also get a hint of that with some of his more sane acts throughout the movie.
Herzog paints the picture of insanity well as he spins this tale of a man’s mental breakdown. He wanted to focus on the poetry of the insanity as opposed to the clinical aspect of it. He has actors freeze or slow up in certain key moments to show some points where things change or become different or more clear. Some elements in the story have to be read into a bit more to really catch what Herzog is getting at. The ostriches and how they hide their heads in the sand, which is never shown but can be seen as metaphor for how McCullum’s family and friends don’t really speak out or try too hard to figure what really broke his brain. Besides the obvious meddling of his mother in his life, we can only guess that he was somehow more abused as a child than is being shown on film or mentioned or perhaps one day he simply snapped and that’s that, as they say. But watch and interpret as you will, viewers, I can only say what I see and bring my own thoughts to the film as should you.The DVD features an audio commentary track by Herzog that is very insightful as well as a thirty-minute interview with Herzog and members of his team with some good behind-the-scenes footage. Also included on the DVD is a short film by Ramin Bahrani, “Plastic Bag” that was narrated by Herzog. Another odd film about the life and adventures of a plastic bag and where the wind takes it.
Article first published as DVD Review: My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done on Blogcritics.