My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done
R1 - America - First Look Studios
Review written by and copyright: Ethan Stevenson (30th October 2010).
The Film

I like to think of San Diego – which is, if I haven’t mentioned this before, my hometown – as a serene paradise of unmatched beauty. We’re a city surprisingly rich in history: the landing site of European explorer Juan Cabrillo’s first voyage to California, San Diego also served as one of the key cities during the Spanish, and later Mexican rule of the North American West Coast, and, according to Anchorman Ron Burgundy, San Diego is notable for being named after a whales… well, you know the rest. Every summer an orgasmic explosion of geekly delights descends upon the city with the annual Comic-Con (it is, simply, heaven for nerds like me). Our weathermen have the easiest jobs in the world; winter, spring, summer or fall, it’s almost always a balmy 74º. The landscape is, in my totally biased opinion, gorgeous and offers much variety (the saying goes something like: you’re five minutes from the beach, an hour from the mountains and two hours from the desert.) The crime rate is low – the ninth safest city in the US according to Forbes – and the pollution and traffic congestion even lower.

Now that my unapologetic tourism blurb is over, I should also mention that my crime statistic is a little misleading. Certainly, San Diego is no Detroit, but it’s also not a Mayberry either. We have our share of weird, violent crimes, and in some cases said crimes are weirder than you’d expect. The most notable is probably The Heaven's Gate suicides that occurred in the upper-class suburb of Rancho Santa Fe in 1997. Cult leader Marshall Applewhite convinced 38 others to kill themselves – while dressed in full black sportswear – so that their souls could board a spacecraft that was trailing the Hale-Bopp Comet, and that they alone would be saved from the coming evil. Clearly, Applewhite was insane. Although only eight at the time, I remember the news stories and the footage of NIKE clad feet poking out from blanket covered stretchers and bunk beds. The cult deaths received mass airtime on the national news, and it seemed to be a topic of much discussion for months on end.

I say all this because although, far less well known, a Pacific Beach matricide committed in 1979 by a UCSD graduate student who was also a local actor whom received critical acclaim, is just a odd (if not even more so) and doubly as chilling as The Heaven's Gate suicides, and, most importantly, it provides the loose base for Werner Herzog’s new film “My Son My Son, What Have Ye Done”, produced by none-other than David Lynch. Although I have no memory of this gruesome murder – how could I have, I was negative ten at the time – my parents remember it vividly. Or so they tell me. A promising genius stabs his mother to death with an antique saber in a neighbor’s home. He stabbed her 19 times. But… why? Well, Herzog’s film sort of explains that – it certainly isn’t concerned with the who, or the how, both of which are revealed as cold hard facts in the first 10 minutes of the film – if in an oddly roundabout way that takes us to exotic places like Peru, back and fourth several months, and into glimpses of various scenes from Brad McCullum’s (Michael Shannon) life. The simple, and frankly only, answer is that McCullum is insane. This film then is an exploration of his descent into madness.

As “My Son My Son…” opens, a SDPD detective (Willem Defoe) and his rookie partner (Michael Peña) receive a call over their radio, directing them to the crime scene where a 30-something year old Point Loma man killed his mother for reasons unknown. When they arrive, the detective and his partner begin interviewing friends, neighbors and family members about why Brad – who has holed himself up in his mothers flamingo-pink house with two unseen hostages – might have done such a terrible thing. These interviews are blended into flashbacks – fragments of McCullum’s past – that don’t particularly explain why he did what he did, but more simply that this man had cracked long, long ago. Interspersed between the various interviews and flashbacks is a dry depiction of a police stand off and hostage negotiation between Brad, the detectives and later, the SWAT team, which Herzog seems almost completely uninterested in (although he does have some fun with Peña’s rookie cop character, who thinks he’s the star of an action film. It’s quite humorous and allows the director to almost deconstruct audience expectations).

This is not a docudrama, nor a true crime story that is utterly faithful to the real life murder case. Herzog estimates that the script, which he co-wrote with his frequent collaborator Herb Golder, is 75% to 80% original. McCullum is a heightened version of Mark Yavorsky, the real killer. Many of the other characters, including Brad’s girlfriend (Chloë Sevigny) and the director of the Greek play in which he’d been cast (Udo Kier), are amalgams of many people known to Yavorsky. Brad’s trip to Peru is almost entirely made up (although it is true that Yavorsky spent some time in the Middle East and it’s there that he is thought to have “changed”, in a very similar fashion as the interviewees recount of McCullum’s trip to South America), as is the uncomfortable relationship with Brad’s overbearing mother, played to such wonderfully eerie effect by the always exceptional Grace Zabriskie.

I’ve read that quite a few viewers were upset that “My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done” lacks the sort of Lynchian flair that they expected – which is perhaps why the film has such mediocre ratings (6.6/10 on IMDB, and an almost dead even 50% on Rottentomatoes) – but I have this to say: not only is that claim unfounded because Lynch’s touch, however minor, is most definitely felt (a scene involving a midget evokes thoughts of “Twin Peaks” (1990-1991) for instance), but, also remember that the “Blue Velvet” (1984) director did not write “My Son, My Son…”, nor did he direct it. He was simply the executive producer and while tiny stylistic flourishes of the man’s input can be seen, and a few of his familiar chosen-faces noticed – the aforementioned Grace Zabriskie and Willem Defoe, and the supremely underrated and not previously discussed Brad Dourif (who, if only in the film for less than ten minutes, absolutely steals the show) to name a few – this is Werner Herzog show, and mostly his show alone.

The German director weaves an admittedly nontraditional narrative together with such haphazard craftsmanship that the film is disconcerting, but unsurprisingly cool. Forgoing the more standardized practice of shooting coverage (multiple cameras, at multiple angles), Herzog and his long time cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger stage the negotiation and interview scenes so that a single camera, often handheld or stead-i-cam captures the action in raw, unedited long takes. The effect allows for a bit of spontaneity from the actors (all of whom seem to thrive on the seat-of-your pants approach), but it is also made even more jarring, by the fractured jump cuts to the flashbacks.

“My Son, My Son…” is a strange film not doubt. Characters look into the camera seemingly frozen in time, like a photograph, and Herzog holds these shots for what seems like minutes on end (in reality they are thirty to sixty seconds at most, but still quite peculiar), but, on the whole the film is not as incoherent or as “out there” as you might think, and strange as it may be, it’s also quite focused (if not in a traditional sense). In fact the plot – what little of one that there is – is quite ordinary, and at it’s most basic, the structure of the film isn’t all that unorganized or listless. The picture is fragmented simply by the nature in which it’s told (via flashbacks), yes, but not to in the same sort of confusing complexity as say Lynch’s “Lost Highway” (1997). Which is probably a good thing, because “Lost Highway” makes my brain hurt, and not in a good way.

Video

“…It's an immature camera created by computer people who do not have a sensibility or understanding for the value of high-precision mechanics, which has a 200-year history. It's terrible: Whenever you have to reboot the camera, it takes 4½ minutes or so. It drove me insane, because sometimes something is happening and you can't just push the button and record it. An assistant cameraman said this camera would be ideal if we were filming the National Library in Paris, which has been sitting there for centuries. But everything that moves faster than a library is a problem for the RED. Super 35mm celluloid is still better...” – Director Werner Herzog on the 4K RED ONE Digital Camera in an interview for DGA Quarterly.

Herzog shot “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done” on RED. Apparently he didn’t have a good experience, although, reportedly few filmmakers do in all honesty. Steven Soderbergh, Peter Jackson and a couple of the other digital 4K-favoring “big boys” all have had to make compromises with RED (Jackson even had to ditch the camera as his main system for “The Lovely Bones” (2009) due to technical issues). I don’t if his Werner Herzog’s RED-related issues during “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done” begun and ended with it’s bothersome boot times and persistent crashing, or if he was also unsatisfied with the resulting image.

Watching this disc, I could see how Herzog might be disappointed with the end results. And, at the same time, I could see how he might have intended for the film to appear as it does here. Granted a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, the standard-def image isn’t particularly compelling, although not for lack of trying (some of the locations are gorgeous). The picture is completely washed out, and while I’m certain that the desaturated colors, orangey skin-tones and the swath of blues and browns produced on screen are the result of a creative decision, the atrociously weak black level and near absence of convincing depth (or any appreciable contrast, to be frank) is not. Is the flatness a fault of the DVD or the RED? I can’t say, but regardless it is distracting and mood killing. Detail is inconsistent too, which I’m more inclined to think is a result of the camera, rather than the DVD simply because these look almost like focus issues and filtered softness (then again, perhaps even that is intentional – I just don’t know). Clarity wavers in and out of shots and scenes; sometimes looking brilliant and detailed and other times, dull and muddy. Faces can have a surprising level of detail – Shannon’s beard and Sevigny’s freckles are both crisp. Sometimes the opposite is true; Udo Kier has an oddly plasticized, soft face in most of his scenes and other characters have a mix of both rich detail and not. Likewise fabrics and other small details are sometimes defined, revealing well-rendered patterns in Sevigny’s sweater, the intricacies of the tile roof on a Spanish Revival, or the clear view of the hundreds of windows that adorn that small San Diego skyline. But then again, even those same details may not be there in other shots. It’s problematically inconsistent to say the least and I’m not quite sure that the sporadic softness is a fault of the resolution limitations of the standard-def DVD format. I think it may be something deeper, baked into the source material. CCD noise is a problem too – and that’s definitely the fault of the camera – with dark scenes awash in blocky, harsh noise.

On the plus side, there is no evidence of edge enhancement and artificial sharpening, nor any severe cases of color banding even though the film was rigorously color graded in post production, and the encode is solid with no excess or additional artifacts butting up against the source noise. This is a tough disc to grade because I can’t really tell how much of the discs peculiarities are intentional, and how many aren’t. Mostly my score is based on conjecture and what I’m seeing (which truthfully, I don’t like), but perhaps a pair of different eyes will see a nicer image.

Audio

There are two audio options included; neither of which are really the clear winner. Viewers get a choice between an English Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix (48kHz/448 kbps) and a slightly limper English Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track (48kHz/192 kbps). Herzog’s film is largely a dialogue-centric, front focused and muted affair, so I wouldn’t say that the 6-channel mix is miles ahead of the stereo track – in fact, in some ways, “My Son, My Son…” really works better in 2-channel format. However, for the mild use of the rears in a few scenes, mostly during the time spent in Peru, which helps feed a slightly creepier atmosphere into your mind as you watch, I’ll say that it’s the track I prefer… if only by a very small margin. The eerie score by Ernst Reijseger is clear, precise and offers the best moments in the film on a sonic level. The few seconds of low bass comes from Reijseger's cello. Otherwise, there’s very little activity outside of speech and a mild bit ambience; in short this isn’t a great mix, but it fits the material.

In a weird bit of authoring the disc defaults to the 2.0 mix, then offers the audio commentary, which is encoded in 2.0 LPCM of all things (why couldn’t the stereo mix be lossless instead?), via the first cycle of the “audio” button on one’s remote. The Dolby 5.1 track oddly comes up after that with one more push. Why the disc doesn’t just default to the surround mix I don’t know, I just know that it should.

Optional English for the hearing impaired and Spanish subtitles are included.

Extras

While it’s not exactly stacked, First Look has provided a very decent collection of supplements on Herzog’s latest feature. Easily the best of the bunch is an audio commentary with the director, co-writer and producer. A short film (narrated, but not directed, by Herzog) is also included, as is a featurette with the writers (Golder and Herzog himself). A couple of theatrical trailers are offered under a different submenu marked “Previews”, including one for “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done”.

An audio commentary with writer/director Werner Herzog, co-writer Herbert Golder and producer Eric Bassett kicks things off. This is one of the better commentaries I’ve lately. Herzog, Golder and Bassett (who sounds, I think, quite a bit like Jason Bateman) talk through the whole film reflecting on the troubled production that began life thirteen years ago, and how it really came to life due to the interested of one David Lynch. And when I say that they talk through the whole film I mean it; with the exception of a 2-minute gag of hymning and hawing between the 42 and 44 minute markers, they offer consistently interesting comments packed with info on, the script, working with the RED One, the real case and what it was like to meet Mark Yavorsky, the real murderer, casting, shooting in San Diego, Herzog’s close collaboration with his editors and DP to create a certain narrative rhythm, and tons (and I really mean tons) more. Herzog is a delight, and for once seems more than happy to let the other two give their input (he’s always so energetic, I find, that in most other cases the director dominates these types of discussions so that he may as well be talking by himself). This is a great, great commentary.

The short film, called “Plastic Bag” (16x9 anamorphic widescreen, 18 minutes 27 seconds), was written and directed by Ramin Bahrani. Narrated by Werner Herzog, the film is about the life (and death) a plastic bag, as the bag reflects wafting on a sandy beach. The short is pretentious in more than a few ways but, at the same time, Herzog’s unique delivery and way with words (and that accent) make this a little less unbearable.

Also worth watching is an featurette with co-writers Golder and Herzog titled “Behind the Madness: the Making of ‘My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done’” (16x9 anamorphic widescreen, 27 minutes 30 seconds) in which both men share the story of how the film came to be, Golder’s fascination with Greek tragedy and the real life case that the inspired the film, the long and difficult road that the production traveled to get on screen, and much more. This is a surprisingly engaging, even fascinating featurette and is a must watch for the rare photos of and recounted interviews with Mark Yavorsky, the man on whom the character Brad McCullum is based. There’s also a bit of behind-the-scenes footage, although nothing here is, refreshingly, of the EPK variety.

Finally, a couple of trailers are included. We get a theatrical trailer for “My Son My Son, What have ye done?” (1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, 2 minutes 19 seconds), the latest directorial endeavor from actor Tim Blake Nelson called “Leaves of Grass” (1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, 2 minutes 27 seconds), and a indie comedy called “The Locksmith” (2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, 1 minute 34 seconds). “Leaves of Grass” looks pretty interesting. It stars Ed Norton in dual roles; one, a straight-laced investment banker and the other, said bankers pot-dealing lowlife of a brother.

Packaging

“My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done” arrives on home video from First Look Studios in a single disc package, housed inside an eco-box keep case. Just on a side note; the black background with the gold colored “David Lynch Presents” banner reminds me of early Universal DVD's which used to use a similar font and style to list the edition heading.

Overall

Werner Herzog’s “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done” doesn’t really have a plot and there’s basically no character development in it at all. Honestly, nothing of consequence happens during a majority of the 93-minute runtime, and anything that does, you already know by the end of the first beat. And yet, the film is unquestionably quite an alluring watch… strangely so. The ensemble cast is truly extraordinary and the performances are exceptional (Shannon may be type-cast as another crazy, but he does crazy so well, I don’t care). Even though very, very little actually happens in the film, I was glued to the screen both times I ran it through. This is definitely a film that will divide audiences, perhaps even more so than it already has divided critics, so I can’t outright give this my highest recommendation, despite the fact that I think it’s a brilliant piece of cinema (if not a tiny bit disappointing considering that both the names David Lynch and Werner Herzog appear in the credits; I concede that it is certainly weaker than most of what either have done individually). Simply I think this is a case of those that will like the movie, will like it; those that don’t, will hate it. No in-betweens on this one I’m afraid; it is that polarizing.

The home video release is decent, although a bit underwhelming in that the DVD is the only version of the film available. Why First Look didn’t release a Blu-ray I can’t say. Herzog’s “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” (2009) got one from the same distributor and it sold fairly well on the high-def format; perhaps “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done” will be revisited at a later date in HD. At least I hope it is because the current offering features inconsistent video, less than impressive, but passable, lossy audio and the extras, while extremely satisfying, are a bit tame. Rent it, to see if this one grabs you as it did me. But, if you don’t like it, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The Film: B Video: C Audio: C+ Extras: C+ Overall: C+

 


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