With Werner Herzog’s quickie neo-noir My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done coming along so soon after his flipped-out rendition of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant, longtime Herzog fans may well wonder whether the grizzled German director is hiding some odd ulterior motive. Produced by David Lynch and written by Herbert Golder, My Son stars Michael Shannon as an unhinged free spirit and part-time actor who kills his mother (Grace Zabriskie) and takes hostages to keep homicide detective Willem Dafoe at bay. The movie follows Dafoe as he interviews witnesses (such as Shannon’s girlfriend, Chloë Sevigny) in order to figure out when and why Shannon went off his nut. My Son and Bad Lieutenant are both pretty far removed from the wilderness adventures and focused character sketches Herzog is known for. Has he developed this sudden interest in potboiler urban crime dramas in order to bank some cash? Or is this, as James Franco would put it, “performance art?”
Actually, My Son seems more like an extension of Herzog’s recent documentaries, which often toy with the idea of what’s “real” by including awkward reenactments and blatantly staged interviews. Golder’s dialogue in My Son is periodically hackneyed and occasionally hyperbolic (as when one of Shannon’s friends warns him, “Only faggots and Negroes with attitude become actors”), and the cast seems to have been instructed to speak at a discordant pitch. When Zabriskie is emotional, Shannon reverts to monotone; when Sevigny is muted, Shannon gets extra-freaky. At one point, when thunder and lightning interrupt an intense Shannon monologue, he starts over with the exact same inflection. It’s all… not quite right.
What is Herzog up to? Well, it seems significant that Shannon aspires to be an actor (going so far as to watch a Greek tragedy, and reciting along with the lead actor in full voice, from the audience), and there’s definitely an extra layer of meaning to the climactic scene where Shannon places a basketball in a spindly tree, silhouetted against the San Diego skyline. My Son seems to explore that mix of the synthetic with the natural, the iconoclastic and the expected. But it’s undeniably a bumpy trip. While watching Shannon talk to his pet flamingoes or tote around an embroidered pillow that reads “M Is For Mom, Not Maid,” viewers will have to decide for themselves whether My Son is a terrible, terrible movie or an uncompromising Herzog experiment in reality-bending. Here’s a suggestion: consider the track record.