My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done Review

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done is based on the true story of a man who killed his mother very shortly after rehearsing for Orestes, a Greek play famous for its matricidal themes.
The film opens with the police, led by Hank (Willem Dafoe), arriving on the scene of the murder of Mrs. McCullum (Grace Zabriskie) by her son Brad (Michael Shannon). Like the Greek play Orestes, which Brad is also rehearsing for, the murder is the opening and the film then focuses more on the events following the murder and the reconstruction of what led to this through the memories of those close to Brad. Throughout the film Brad is holed up in his house whilst the police surround it and try to talk him out. His fiance Ingrid (Chloe Sevigny) and his friend Lee (Udo Kier) both arrive and speak to Hank about Brad’s troubled past. The film is actually made up mostly of flashbacks that are sparked by the memories of Ingrid and Lee.
Brad is a disturbing and clearly unhinged character, something his friends and family appear to ignore, and Michael Shannon is fantastic as the character, bringing intensity and an unnerving sense that there is something dark and troubling lingering under the surface in the moments where it’s not right there on the surface.

The whole film is very unnerving and oddly intense despite often being very slow and almost stilted in places. Herzog does a great job of unsettling the audience in many ways and this sense of unbalance permeates every aspect of the film. There is one early shot where the camera tracks in just a little at an odd moment towards the end of the scene. The movement is subtle and could be missed but the effect is that of making the viewer feel uncomfortable as the unconventional framing and camera movement does just enough to make the scene feel slightly off-kilter despite little else in the scene leading the audience to this conclusion. The music used also adds to this discomfort with a score that is discordant at times with the visuals, continuing too long into subsequent scenes and mixing diegetic with non-diegetic. The two most bizarre and unsettling moments are when the characters appear to freeze whilst looking directly towards the camera and the scene is held for just a bit too long to come across as amusing.

With the large banner that declares ‘David Lynch Presents’  (Lynch produced the film) a lot of comparisons have been made in regard to these stylistic choices to Lynch’s work but these do not feel too accurate. These arguments also often appear to hang on the supposed traits of Lynch such as dwarfs, conveniently forgetting that Herzog made Even Dwarfs Started Small, but My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done feels very much like the work of Herzog. There is even a sort of joke in the film that could be read as a little dig at Lynch; Brad (who is clearly Herzog’s sympathetic character) at one point shouts at a meditating character, “come up with a coherent argument!”

Despite possessing a plot that is very similar to countless television police procedurals Herzog is so obsessed with the character of Brad that the film is much more focused on delving into his twisted mind than the hostage situation going on. The film could be seen in many ways to be a deconstruction or subversion of the stereotypical police procedural (Hank even tells a fellow officer – “You watch too much TV”), much like Herzog’s wonderful ‘remake’ of Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant. This time though the film is focused on the ‘bad guy’ (Brad) rather than the ‘good guy’ (Terence in Bad Lieutenant) but they are perhaps both as unhinged as each other. In fact, in the opening conversation in My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done Hank comments, “Sometimes I’m not sure whose worse, us or the fucking criminals.”

Herzog is obsessed with these unusual and often deranged characters. Like many of Herzog’s most iconic protagonists such as Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, Terence Mcdonagh and in some ways even Timothy Treadwell, Brad is detached from this world and the reality that keeps most people grounded. Brad is fascinating and Herzog delves deep into what drives him to kill his mother but in searching all we see are riddles and enigmas. The tagline to the film is “The mystery isn’t who, but why?”. My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done spends almost the entire runtime unravelling the mystery of why but leaves us with more questions, there are no simple solutions or easy answers and in this uncertainty lies the film’s greatest strength.

This review was originally posted at HeyUGuys.