Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Review : My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?

“Razzle Them. Dazzle Them. Razzle Dazzle Them.”

The first lines spoken by the matricidal Brad McCallum (Michael Shannon) in Werner Herzog’s second feature released this year (after Bad Lieutenant : Port Of Call New Orleans) perhaps serve also as a summation of the works of the most singular director working today. McCallum joins the ranks of Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, Nosferatu, Little Dieter, Timothy Treadwell, Kaspar Hauser… the list really does go on… of larger than life characters engaged in elemental struggles to be heard above the din of normality, of society, of convention and possibility.

“I don’t mean to alarm you Miss Goodmanson, but it’s all a little strange. You see, he’s claiming his name is Farouk. He shouts about God and tosses oatmeal at us. It’s all a little confusing”.

So says Detective Hank Havenhurst (Willem Dafoe) to Brad’s girlfriend Ingrid (Chloe Sevigny). She’s arrived at her boyfriend’s house to find it surrounded by police, engaged in a stand-off with Brad who, after slaying his mother with a sword, has apparently taken two hostages in his home.

Setting itself up as a police procedural, we know that in the hands of Herzog we’ll be watching anything but. Told through multiple flashbacks, we’re shown the progression of Brad’s mental disintegration leading up to the present. It seems that whilst on a rafting expedition in Peru, Brad heard the voice of god telling him not to go onto the river that day, he heeded the given warning, and everyone else on the expedition drowned. Sensing the power of this communication, he vowed to follow the voice whenever he heard it, and after being removed from rehearsals for Aeschylus’ Oresteia (itself a text dealing with matricide), it told him to murder his doting mother.

It’s hard to articulate the particularities and peculiarities which serve to make Herzog’s films so special, and this is no exception, it’s like trying to express in words the dream fevers of David Lynch (here nominally acting as producer), although Twin Peaks is a tonal comparison (minus its’ more melodramatic aspects). His camera finds beauty and lyricism in the most unusual places, a can of oatmeal rolling down the street, a basketball carefully placed in a tree, but it also has a keen eye for finding absurdity in all facets of humanity. Brad may be the craziest person here, but both ends of the socio-political spectrum are held up for scrutiny under Herzog’s curious lens, from racist ostrich farmer Uncle Ted (another great turn from Brad Dourif) to the doomed hippy rafting companions in Peru :

“I mean, I’m not going to take your vitamin pills. I’m not going to drink your herbal tea. I’m not going to the sweat lodge with a 108 year old Native American who reads Hustler magazine and smoke Kool cigarettes. I’m not going to discover my boundaries. I am going to stunt my inner growth. I think I shall become a muslim. Call me Farouk.”

Character tableaux form and are held by the actors, with Herzog holding the image in artificial stasis to allow the inherent strangeness of this particular portrait of Americana, that only a foreigner (only Herzog?) could find, to seep out. He’s always had a wonderfully acute eye for documenting the peculiarities of American culture, from an outsider’s perspective in Stroszek (1977) to this most recent diptych which reinterprets staple genres of American cinema, under his guiding hand transmuting into something else entirely.

Michael Shannon, quickly becoming the most consistently interesting actor in American cinema, gives a performance of astonishing intensity, dancing between non sequiturs with manic dexterity. He’s wonderfully supported by Grace Zabriskie as his jello-making besotted mother, Willem Dafoe playing the straight man trying to make sense of the madness and Bad Lieutenant’s Irma P Hall, recounting the events immediately before the murder as if in the final scene of a Scooby Doo episode. Only Sevigny and (surprisingly) Udo Kier seem to struggle with finding a balance in the tone.

A beautiful soundtrack featuring a kind of Peruvian plainsong and Angelo Badalamenti-sounding haunting melodies underscore some stunningly unique images. But ultimately this is another Herzogian struggle between the elemental forces of nature and the individual, and man’s desperate and (from this filmmaker’s perspective) unnatural desire to conquer both. It’s better than Bad Lieutenant and one of the most wholly original films you’ll see this year.

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? - 2009 - USA, Germany - 91 mins - Dir : Werner Herzog

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