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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? (DVD)

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?
2009 (2010) - Industrial Entertainment/Absurda (First Look Studios)

Werner Herzog and David Lynch are two of the most unique, distinctive, individualistic filmmakers of all time. But apart from that, they don't really have all that much in common. Herzog is wildly prolific, often releasing two feature films per year. Lynch hasn't directed a feature since Inland Empire back in 2006. Herzog is equally comfortable with both fiction and documentary filmmaking. While it may be difficult to pigeonhole exactly what many of Lynch's movies are, I think we can all agree that none of them can be described as non-fiction. Despite their differences in style and method, it seems somehow inevitable that the Eagle Scout from Montana and the globe-trotting son of biologist parents from Munich would one day cross paths.


That day has finally arrived with My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?.

"Collaboration" might be too strong a word as Herzog was working on this screenplay for many years with Herbert Golder before meeting with Lynch. But it was Lynch's immediate enthusiasm for the project that finally got the long-gestating project in front of the cameras. Inspired by a true story, the film stars Michael Shannon (so good in films like Bug and Revolutionary Road) as a stage actor cast as Orestes in the Greek tragedy The Oresteia. Already deeply disturbed after returning from a trip to Peru, the play affects Shannon so much that he takes it to heart, killing his mother with a sword. Willem Dafoe appears as the detective attempting to figure out why this happened, interviewing fiancée Chloe Sevigny and the play's director, Udo Kier.

While Herzog does include some overt references to his executive producer's style, the most obvious of which is the casting of Lynch regular player Grace Zabriskie as Shannon's mother, it isn't fair to say that this is Herzog's attempt at making a David Lynch film. The movie is filled with indelible images that could come from no one but Herzog, particularly the Peru sequences. Michael Shannon may want to ease off on playing crazy folk for awhile but he's spellbinding in this role. He walks a fine line throughout. He's clearly disturbed but if he'd gone too far, you'd wonder why his friends and loved ones weren't frightened of him. Zabriskie is in fine form as Shannon's mother and Brad Dourif, who has worked with both Herzog and Lynch on several occasions, has a memorable if brief role as Uncle Ted. Any movie that allows Michael Shannon, Brad Dourif and Udo Kier to share the screen is worth watching in my book.

Strangely enough however, the movie never entirely becomes more than a series of great images, performances and scenes. There are moments that stay with you but the overall effect is somewhat muted. The film may improve with repeat viewings. But when it was all over, I felt as if the movie was trying to say something but either I couldn't quite figure out what it was or the filmmakers couldn't. Still, there's more than enough to recommend My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, even if it feels more like an exercise than a fully realized film.

Video quality on the DVD is nothing better than average and the 5.1 sound is reasonably good. Extras are a bit slim but very well done. Herzog is one of the best commentators around and his audio track with screenwriter Herbert Golder and producer Eric Bassett is reliably candid, informative and engaging. Herzog and Golder also provide on-camera interviews, most of which repeats stories already told in the commentary. Best of all is Plastic Bag, a short film directed by Ramin Bahrani (Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo) with narration read by Herzog. It's one of the best shorts I've seen in many years and you certainly shouldn't overlook it.

Werner Herzog has certainly made better films than My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? and no doubt will make many more. This isn't an easy movie to recommend and I imagine even some fans of Herzog and Lynch may be disappointed by it. Even so, the film has a number of truly inspired moments. It's a bit like a jigsaw puzzle with a few mesmerizing pieces that assemble into a somewhat mundane image. It's worth it just to consider those individual pieces.

Film Rating: B
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/B/B+

Dr. Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com


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