Parent Trap

12.09.09

Werner Herzog, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, 2009, color digital film, 93 minutes. Production stills. Left: Mrs. McCullum, Brad McCullum, and Ingrid (Grace Zabriskie, Michael Shannon, and Chloë Sevigny). Right: Ingrid (Chloë Sevigny). Photos: Lena Herzog © Absurda.


IT’S ODD, AND SLIGHTLY UNSETTLING, when a great director assumes the style of another great director, but that’s what seems to have happened in Werner Herzog’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, a surreal psychodrama loosely based on the bizarre matricide committed by talented student actor and basketball player Mark Yavorsky in 1979 San Diego. Written by Herzog and longtime associate Herbert Golder, a classics professor at Boston University, the film was executive-produced by David Lynch—and it shows.

Renamed Brad McCullum for the movie, the Yavorsky character is played with bewildered intensity by Michael Shannon, who, guided by Herzog’s sensitive direction, delivers a moving portrait of a well-meaning but clearly unraveling personality who ultimately kills his own mother with an antique sword at a neighbor’s house. In Yavorsky’s mind, the murder was inspired by the ancient Greek myth of Orestes, whom he’d been rehearsing to play as a graduate student in drama at UC San Diego at the time of his psychotic break. A subject of classic tragedies by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, Orestes murdered his mother, Clytemnestra, for having killed his father, Agamemnon, years earlier. While the script takes great liberties with the Yavorsky story, these details remain intact.

The rest is pure Lynch. The blank, ingenuous cops (Willem Dafoe and Michael Peña) who arrive at the murder scene are borrowed from the beginnings of Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001), Brad Dourif (McCullum’s ostrich-farming redneck uncle) from Blue Velvet (1986), and the always disturbing Grace Zabriskie (McCullum’s mother) from Wild at Heart (1990), Twin Peaks (1990–91), and Inland Empire (2006). There are pink flamingos, the aforementioned ostriches, black Jell-O, God as the Quaker Oats man, a coffee mug inscribed with the phrase RAZZLE DAZZLE, and Udo Kier (an honorary Lynch character actor if ever there was one). The combination of dark thoughts and behavior with San Diego’s oppressively bright sunlight also seems typically Lynchian, even if dictated by the location of the source story.

If you like Lynch’s best work (I do), this isn’t fatal, but viewers may feel the same anxiety-of-influence uneasiness one feels when watching Brian De Palma’s earlier thrillers (Sisters, Dressed to Kill, Body Double, etc.). At the time, De Palma so wanted to be Hitchcock that these films teeter on the edge of pastiche, but his cinematic talent and obvious love for the medium make them compelling nonetheless. Such is the case with My Son, where core elements seem drawn from Herzog’s characteristic obsessions—beleaguered visionaries, extreme situations—but are operating in a world designed by Lynch. Indeed, the film is something of a science experiment in the field of auteur theory. Because My Son has all the surrealist trappings of a Lynch project but lacks the tone of creeping ambient dread that he has refined and trademarked, one could say the film proves Andrew Sarris right—directors do leave a distinct personal stamp on their work, even in an otherwise highly collaborative medium.

Most, if not all, of Herzog’s plagiaristic excesses in My Son are atoned for by his prominent use of a song by the haunting dolceola-playing prewar gospel singer Washington Phillips, who, though long dead, deserves a wider audience.

Andrew Hultkrans

Werner Herzog’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done is available on DVD beginning September 14, 2010. For more details, click here.