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My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done DVD Review

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done movie poster My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done

Theatrical Release: December 11, 2009 / Running Time: 91 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Werner Herzog / Writers: Herbert Golder, Werner Herzog

Cast: Michael Shannon (Brad Macallam), Willem Dafoe (Detective Havenhurst), Chloë Sevigny (Ingrid Gudmundson), Udo Kier (Lee Meyers), Michael Peña (Detective Vargas), Grace Zabriskie (Mrs. Macallam), Brad Dourif (Uncle Ted), Irma Hall (Mrs. Roberts), Loretta Devine (Ms. Roberts), Candice Coke (Officer Slocum), Gabriel Pimentel (Little Man), Braden Lynch (Gary), James C. Burns (Brown), Noel Arthur (Naval Guard), Julius Mørck (Phil)

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I've got to confess that I'm a late arrival to the Werner Herzog party. The 68-year-old German director, best known for the 1972 historical adventure Aguirre: The Wrath of God and the 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, hasn't made many films that the general populace would recognize. One such rarity was last year's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans, which I enjoyed enough to want see more from Herzog. Besides the familiar title, Port of Call boasted Nicolas Cage and Eva Mendes as its stars, but it only found its way into 96 domestic theaters last fall.

It can't be too surprising then to learn that Herzog's follow-up film, the intriguingly-titled My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, didn't even get that many screens with its cast of respected and Oscar-nominated but not quite marquee name actors. While there isn't even an official box office record of it,
My Son did play theatrically, in New York last December, San Diego this past April, and various film festivals around the globe before and after those engagements. It came to DVD this week, ready to be discovered by the many whose regions were not hit in the limited run.

Based on a true story, the film follows two San Diego homicide detectives -- a professional veteran (William Dafoe) and an eager rookie (Michael Peña) -- to a suburban crime scene, where a murder has developed into a hostage situation. The movie bounces between the present standoff and flashbacks of recent episodes involving the suspected murderer, Brad Macallam (Michael Shannon). The latter are recounted by two summoned individuals who are close to Brad, his fiancée Ingrid (Chloë Sevigny) and their shared stage director Lee Meyers (Udo Kier).

Their stories shed a great deal of light on the current situation and raise unspoken questions about how such acquaintances could remain idle bystanders in the life of an increasingly deranged man. Brad had been working with Ingrid and Meyers as the lead of the Ancient Greek matricide play Oresteia and the line between life and art has become troublingly blurred for the actor. Well into his thirties, Brad is still living with his mother (Grace Zabriskie) and letting her cater to him in a house full of flamingo decor, complete with two of the pink birds living out front.

Academy Award nominee Michael Shannon takes his creeper shtick to leading man as Brad Macallam, a promising San Diegan stage actor who gets a little too into the part of Orestes. Career man Havenhurst (Willem Dafoe) and rookie Vargas (Michael Pena) are the partnered SDPD homicide detectives calling the shots at the Macallam house hostage scene.

While I've already told you I'm no Herzog authority, I know enough to recognize that the story taps into his sensibilities and, perhaps even more, those of executive producer David Lynch, who "presents" this film. Press materials only call it a "psychological thriller" and to some degree, that's a fair label. But like Port of Call and Lynch's askew fare, this is at its heart a dark comedy, one whose bizarre stylings you can't help but laugh with.

Herzog shuns and retreats from every natural and logical impulse that a narrative filmmaker should have. Where others would cut, he lingers. Where others would place atmospheric score to increase tension, he drops Spanish singers crooning their hearts out about God knows what. The counterintuitive direction serves a number of functions. It keeps viewers on their feet, never cognizant of where things are going and why. It ensures that critics take notice; those who watch movies for a living are well aware of conventions and are unusually receptive to films that shatter them. It also supplies depth, requiring that the film be read and interpreted, mental exercises that most cinema doesn't ask of its audience.

At the same time, you've got to wonder if Herzog isn't just having a laugh, conducting some large-scale experiment to see how weird he can make his films and how critics (a sizable portion of his typical audience) will respond. The director clearly has a wicked sense of humor and a rare position of power, where he can make the movies of his choosing with recognizable actors and little concern for commercial prospects. That such thoughts can arise on a film dramatizing a real modern-day tragedy does make the film seem a little exploitative or disrespectful, even if thirty years have passed since the actual incident. (The real San Diegan, Mark Yavorsky, acted in 1979, was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and died in 2003.) Herzog claimed that 70 percent of the script attributed to him and Boston University classics professor Herbert Golder is false. Still, you can't entirely shake the feeling that mental illness is being used to entertain.

Ostrich-farming Uncle Ted (Brad Dourif, still looking like an aged Chris Kattan, now mustachioed) is not a big fan of the acting profession, to Mr. Meyers' dismay (Udo Kier). But he did have one killer idea for a commercial. The site of Brad's hostage situation is a pink house, which ties in with the flamingo decor and live pets ("eagles in drag").

Nevertheless, My Son, My Son does entertain. A large part of that stems from its willingness to be different and play by its own rules. But at the same time, it's a curious, compelling story told in a curious, compelling fashion.

The acting is universally stellar. No one today can play weird as convincingly as Michael Shannon; if there is a completely normal side to him, I've definitely not seen it. While he's got the standout Norman Batesish part, others are sure to make their mark:
Willem Dafoe and Michael Peña as the procedural police partners widely divided by experience; Chloë Sevigny as the short-shorted girlfriend whose tolerance you can't understand; heavily-accented Udo Kier as the man whose patience is tested while his personal and professional lives blur; Brad Dourif as odd, homophobic ostrich farmer Uncle Ted; Grace Zabriskie as the nosy, fragile, rigid mother; even briefly-seen Irma P. Hall and Loretta Devine as witnesses to the crime.

There is plenty that doesn't even begin to get answered: why God's face is on an Oatmeal canister, what Brad was like before his supposedly life-changing trip to Peru, and what is that tuxedoed dwarf doing in the snow? None of that is essential, though, and the uncertainties can be chalked up to the randomness of Lynch and Herzog that's apparently inseparable from their appeal.

One final aspect that I quite enjoyed was the film's ability, like its antihero, to find striking beauty in ordinary things: a hotel lobby, an escalator in a glass building, a light bulb placed in a ring of prescription glasses. Some of this must be a byproduct of serendipitous filmmaking, but more conformational movies wouldn't find the time to include such images and place value on them. For being able to take you out of cinema's usual emotional range by stumbling on inexplicably profound things, Herzog and the movie deserve special credit.

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done DVD cover art DVD Details

1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English), Dolby Stereo 2.0 (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled or Captioned
Release Date: September 14, 2010
Suggested Retail Price: $24.98
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Black Keepcase


Released exclusively to DVD, My Son, My Son... appears in 1.85:1 widescreen. The element is absolutely clean and sharp, but hazy. The colors are strangely washed-out as contrast is extremely low. There are no blacks, only grays. This must be a deliberate choice, because I see no other way that filmmakers as deliberate and visionary as Lynch and Herzog let something look like this against their wishes.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is robust and appropriate, aside from the occasional rear speaker pop. You'll want to make sure to switch tracks at the film's start; by default, a basic stereo mix plays and it's seriously weak.

A plastic bag is personified with the voice of Werner Herzog in Ramin Bahrani's short film "Plastic Bag." Mark Yavorsky, the San Diegan actor who Greek tragedy moved to matricide, was apparently a big enough fan of Michael Keaton's "One Good Cop" to have its video poster adorn his trailer home door.


Without seeing the case, you might miss the DVD's biggest bonus feature:
an audio commentary by writer/director Werner Herzog, writer Herbert Golder, and producer Eric Bassett, buried in the Set Up menu. It's a fairly lively discussion, covering both the filming experience and the real murder that inspired the movie. In regularly addressing what is real and what is invented, it becomes clear that Herzog's 70% estimate is pretty exaggerated. They don't exactly solve the many stylistic mysteries, but they do clarify their intentions.

Next comes Ramin Bahrani's moving short film Plastic Bag (18:27). Created for the FutureStates series, this short personifies a plastic shopping bag, as it meets its maker (the customer who brings it home) and enters her life, only to get thrown away and abandoned in a humanless world. The connection to My Son is that the bag is voiced by Werner Herzog, who sounds like a cross between James Mason and MacInTalk. Besides the inevitable environmental bend, there are some deep existential themes and impressive photography, which, the end credits emphasize, has not been tainted with digital effects. I see potential in a feature-length version, with Bill Hader voicing the bag.

"Behind the Madness: The Making of My Son, My Son" (27:22) consists of on-camera interviews with Werner Herzog and Herbert Golder. The latter focuses on the research he began working on in the early '90s with the finding and visiting of Mark Yavorsky. We learn of actual remarks by the killer that make it into the script. Herzog talks more about the filming, discussing locations, stylization (characters standing still in time and other effects), casting, music and themes. It's a very informative piece, spruced up by behind-the-scenes footage, movie clips, and photographs (including some of Yavorsky in his eclectic, heavily-decorated trailer).

Under "Previews", we find full trailers for the double Edward Norton comedy Leaves of Grass, The Locksmith and, most importantly, My Son, My Son....

The interesting main menu consists entirely of a creepy Michael Shannon in profile overlooking a loop of the film's closing highway traffic shot.

Sadly, no digital copy is offered for those of you who share David Lynch's love for portable device movie viewing.

Joined by his fiancée Ingrid (Chloe Sevigny), Brad Macallam (Michael Shannon) clutches an "M is for MOM, not maid" pillow, the only thing he needed out of the large army duffel bag he just gave away to a stranger.


Something bearing the names of Werner Herzog and David Lynch is bound to be odd and, as if the title and limited distribution didn't confirm it, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done is not short on eccentricity. I'm not sure I'm entirely comfortable with a real murder being used for basically a dark mental health comedy. But ignoring the strange true story that inspired it, the film intrigues with its bold choices, solid performances, and atypical presentation.

The DVD's low-contrast presentation of the film is also atypical in a worse way, but its bonus features add genuine value. Entered blindly, the movie is bound to elicit head scratching. Discerning viewers who are familiar with the filmmakers and fond of their offbeat fare are much more likely to appreciate this trip.

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Related Reviews:
Directed by Werner Herzog: The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans | Directed by David Lynch: The Straight Story
New: That Evening SunSolitary ManIt's Always Sunny in Philadelphia: The Complete Season 5Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
Into the WildCrumb (Criterion Collection) • A Serious ManThe Cry of the OwlPrimal FearBrooklyn's Finest
Michael Shannon: The RunawaysRevolutionary Road | Chloe Sevigny: Zodiac (2-Disc Director's Cut) | Brad Dourif: Child's Play
Willem Dafoe: The Life Aquatic with Steve ZissouMr. Bean's HolidayFinding NemoFantastic Mr. Fox

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Reviewed September 16, 2010.

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