On DVD: Lost on Planet Werner with My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done
Like a missile out of the declared Hollywood underground, the Werner Herzog-directed, David Lynch-produced, Michael Shannon-starring My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done lands in your yard and dares you to get near, lest it finally detonate. Fresh to DVD this week, it's not a movie you can bring expectations to, unless you're expecting a cranial injury and a case of vertigo.
Herzogians like me won't need to be told it's the rent of the moment, but for normal people (those of you not intimate with the dancing chickens from Stroszek), prep may be necessary. My Son, My Son is ostensibly based on a true story (a young actor, inspired by the Greek tragedy he was rehearsing, sword-slew his mom), and derived from a screenplay by researcher Herbert Golder, but don't for a moment think it's a coherent, sensible telling of a real-life tragedy. Even in his autumnal phase as a reborn Angeleno, Herzog is a renegade against human order, and his long and great career, after all, can be seen as one long timeline of deliberate and horrifying accident-making. The new film feels like it has no impulse control -- there's even a single, unexplained flashback scene of Shannon wandering among rural Asians, for reasons we cannot guess at. Anything could happen. From Willem Dafoe's blandly obsequious cop investigating a killing in a Southern California suburb, to Shannon's leering maniac across the street, to the pink flamingos, (fake and living and sometimes hostile) absolutely everywhere, you get the sense you're in Lynchian territory, except by way of Herzog's jones for surreal digressions and loathing of "a + b = c" plot construction.
It's a shambles, but I mean that in a good way. Herzog is one of the few filmmakers alive who can make ramshackle films out of his lusty impulsiveness and end up with fabulously entertaining results, like last year's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Herzog's and Lynch's parallel whimsicalities have earned our patience over the years -- indeed, it's what we love about them -- and they populate their terrariums with the oddest creatures in Hollywood. Just take a snootful of the staff on hand: Medusa-ish Grace Zabriskie as the fated uber-Mom, Chloe Sevigny as a clueless girlfriend, Brad Dourif as a bigoted ostrich farmer, Udo Kier (of course) as the theater director who gets his eyeglasses gulped by an ostrich (and Herzog makes sure we watch a farmhand jam his hand down the bird's throat to retrieve them), and so on. You get the sense that both Lynch and Herzog, when they look at Julia Roberts or George Clooney, simply see giant slices of white supermarket bread.
The story mostly has Shannon's menacing nutjob present the cops with a mythical hostage situation in his pink San Diego monstrosity of a house, seasoned by Herzog with flashbacks (including to Peru), which explain little. The man is not, after all, a psychological filmmaker, but one besotted with poetic weirdness, especially if it's natural and uncontrollable. And so, here SoCal is another alien landscape; realistic performances or believable narrative ligaments are not on the agenda. There's no feeling for the primary incident's sociopathic horror, just an ironic, almost clinical regard -- that is, if the clinician in question shares the main character's dysfunctional relationship with the world.
Full of non sequitur jokes, My Son, My Son can feel haphazard and silly, but eventually Herzog lands the haymakers like you knew he would, suddenly finding emotional power and strangeness in individual images where you thought none could exist -- as with a chilling posed Last Supper tableau at the doomed Mom's table, and visions of Shannon defiantly walking down a massive up escalator. The metaphors stand outside the protagonist's mental travails, of course, and bloom only as new tidbits of Herzogiana.
The DVD comes with the obligatory Herzog commentary, which is fabulously dry and crazy as always, if not nearly the world-beater we would've cherished had Herzog and Lynch talked over the film in tandem. Also included is indie master Rahman Bahrani's short Plastic Bag, an ecologically-slanted rethink of The Red Balloon, in which Herzog narrates a supermarket bag's first-person "life" from "birth" out of the pile at the store to an endless journey of disposability, from windblown trash to landfill imprisonment to finding his proper place in the Pacific Trash Vortex, a mass of free-floating plastic debris twice the size of Texas. The upshot starts out as a eco-goof, but evolves into a Herzogian lyric set in a post-human world where plastic trash lives forever.