James Stewart stars as a railroad man hired to secretly carry a payroll despite his suspected connections to outlaws
David Lynch is executive producer on this Werner Herzog film about a man, his sword, his mother, and the long arm of the Lord. Inspired by a true story
As the sound of a train is heard in the distance, the title 'David Lynch presents' appears on screen, followed swiftly by 'A Werner Herzog Film' - and so the sort of coupling of which cinephiles have previously dared only dream has at last come true - and is, apparently, 'inspired by a true story'.
My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done is a strange merger of the worlds inhabited by Herzog and Lynch - or perhaps, as one character says of the film's 'hero' Brad McCullum (Michael Shannon), "not so much strange - just different."
When Detective Hank Havenhurst (Willem Dafoe) and his partner Detective Vargas (Michael Pena) are called to a San Diego crime scene, they discover the body of a woman (Grace Zabriskie) run through with a sword, and the prime suspect, her son Brad, holed up with a shotgun and a pair of mysterious hostages in his home across the road. As the bizarre siege continues, Hank interviews Brad's fiancee Ingrid (Chloe Sevigny) and theatre director Lee Meyers (Udo Kier) in the hope of getting to the bottom of Brad's madness.
Lynch regulars Zabriskie and Dafoe are placed alongside Herzog regulars Shannon and Brad Dourif (as Brad's uncle Ted), and Lynchian scenes of suburban unease and obsessive coffee-drinking are set besides more typically Herzogian excursions to the wilds of Peru and other, less geographically bound edges of humanity. Perhaps the sensibilities of the two auteurs come closest together in the sequence where a tuxedoed midget (Gabriel Pimentel) appears in the snow behind Brad and Uncle Ted, recalling both Herzog's Even Dwarves Started Small and Lynch's Twin Peaks.
Yet in one early flashback to Peru, Brad is shown first rejecting Lynch's involvement with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi ("stop meditating!") and then refusing to ride the rapids of a river (as Herzog famously insisted on doing in Fitzcarraldo). "I'm not going to discover my boundaries, I am going to stunt my inner growth," asserts Brad, underlining his status as the kind of madman not seen before in Herzog's oeuvre.
As the film goes on, certain themes and motifs emerge, although they do not so much explain Brad's conduct as complicate our understanding of it further. Was he merely playing out in real life the matricidal role (and familial curse) of Orestes that he had been rehearsing in Lee's play? Or following the 'inner voice' that he discovered during a crisis in South America? Or trying to preach a messianic gospel in a world that is not interested in hearing? Or travelling through a time-tunnel in a "cosmic melodrama"? Or seeking God's design in the mundane? And what does his preoccupation with flamingoes, ostriches and giant roosters have to do with any of this?
The truth is that by the time the film is all over, you will probably be none the wiser - but there is plenty of oddball entertainment to be had. It is a film that addresses itself directly to the audience of Lynch and Herzog, and sets out, in its own special way, to "razzle them, dazzle them, razzle dazzle them."
All these digressions, flashbacks and strange excursions either hold some sort of mystic key to the madness of modern living, or else they are just a random mess; your call. Either way, Herzog's pastiche of Lynch and himself has something darkly amusing to offer to devotees of both directors' work.
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