"A Greek play? The only things Greeks know how to play is with each other's balls."
Werner Herzog is a legend. He's one of the only true uncompromising visionaries that's ever stepped behind a camera. I would not hesitate for a moment to say that he's one of a very select group of filmmakers who has never "sold out" or even come close. Another filmmaker I would put in that group is David Lynch. Yeah, I know, he made Dune, but that film was taken from him and repurposed.
Therefore, a collaboration between the two should have been the film event of the year. However, they got together in 2009 and made a film that virtually no one has heard of, let alone seen. I guess that's keeping in their maverick style, but I had actually forgotten that I saw the trailer for this and had a strong desire to see it. I was in the library browsing their sizable selection and saw it sitting on the shelf and I couldn't get my hands on it fast enough.
The film is My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? and it is a doozy. It is one of the more bizarre films I've ever seen if for no other reason than it seems like a fairly straight-forward murder mystery. It's structured like one, except that we know who the murderer is, the mystery is in why he did it. Michael Shannon plays Brad, a man who murdered his mother with a sword and has barricaded himself inside his house, claiming to have two hostages.
Willem Dafoe and Michael Pena play detectives who have come to the scene to help with the investigation and negotiations. Brad's fiancee Ingrid (Chloe Sevigny) arrives at the scene and begins to give Dafoe some background on Brad. He had made a trip to Peru with some friends to go white water rafting, but claimed he heard the voice of God telling him not to go in the water, and after refusing to go with his friends, he becomes the only survivor when they all die in the rapids.
Brad also has an incredibly strange relationship with his mother (Lynch regular Grace Zabriskie) that seems to be fueled by some peculiar, but unexplained, form of child abuse she inflicted on him as a child. Brad had taken a role in a production of the Greek tragedy of Orestes, a man who slayed his mother with a sword, and the production's director Lee Meyers (Udo Keir, a welcome sight any time he shows up in a film) has also come to the house and provides the detectives with information about Brad.
I suppose that there are a number of ways to interpret exactly why Brad killed his mother. He's very clearly mentally disturbed, yet no one makes an attempt to get him any sort of professional help, they just tend to write him off as eccentric or a victim of circumstance. Everyone mentions that he wasn't the same since he returned from Peru, so was he indeed possessed by spirits on that trip? Is he an impressionable guy driven to intolerance and madness by his intolerant and mad uncle (Brad Dourif)? These are all valid possibilities and the film is in no hurry to draw any conclusions for you.
The film is bizarre in every sense of the word, but it's endlessly watchable. Michael Shannon is one of the most intense actors alive. His commitment to his characters is admirable, and his training as a stage actor serves him well as he can ratchet up intensity, yet keep it measured enough for film, a line that very few actors are able to walk. The rest of the supporting cast is good, but this is Shannon's show. He feels like a dangerous dude even as his fiancee and director try to infuse him with humanity. A number of critics have written off his style as naval-gazing, but I don't see him that way. He seems like a committed actor of the highest order to me, and I enjoy watching anything he does. It also makes me excited to see what he'll do in the role of General Zod in the upcoming Superman reboot.
The film is Herzog's top to bottom, but Lynch's influence can be felt hovering over the proceedings like a specter. Far and away, the most bizarre scene in the film features Brad, his uncle and a dwarf (Verne Troyer) in the woods, staring at the camera for a prolonged period of time. Why is the dwarf there? Who fucking knows? Lynch has a well-known hard-on for dwarfs, but so does Herzog as evidenced by one of his first films Even Dwarfs Started Small. I guess the dwarf is there just for us to deal with. Brad continually makes statements about "why is the world watching me?" and his constant fourth-wall breaking looks at the camera make the audience feel complicit in a crime that is an enigma at best and downright unsolvable at worst.
Anyone who doubts Herzog's commitment to his principles need look no further than the documentary Burden of Dreams about his attempt to make Fitzcarraldo. Even his famous bet with Errol Morris that he would eat his shoe if Morris ever made a film shows his commitment to his principles beyond his films. The guy is dedicated to a degree that most of us are unfamiliar with, but I suppose that's why he's enjoyed such a long and prolific career. He made this film in the same year he made his Bad Lieutenant remake with Nic Cage, and while they share an incredibly esoteric worldview, they couldn't be more different, a testament to Herzog's talent. He's at home in fiction and documentaries (evidenced by his releasing 2 docs in 2011), and I for one will watch anything he does.
So is this a good film? I'm not sure. It definitely seems to be fucking with you while you watch it. It seems to be challenging you to hate it or be driven mad by it, but I suppose it wouldn't be a Herzog or a Lynch film without that feeling. It's a film that every cinephile must see, and certainly fans of either filmmaker, but I would steer your parents away from it, unless they're super cool. Herzog doesn't make films that play in middle America, but I don't think any of us want him to. He wouldn't be Herzog if he did. Much like Terry Gilliam, his ability to succeed in the face of overwhelming opposition makes him a hero to the film world, and I don't think we need to worry about him selling out any time soon.