DVD Review: Werner Herzog, Werner Herzog, “What Have Ye Done”

"My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done," from director Werner Herzog, stars Michael Shannon as a man who, some months after a near-death experience, kills his mother with a sword. While the story at the heart of the film is intriguing enough, the film is ultimately a mess that feels like Herzog is doing a cover of a David Lynch film.
The tag line to the film, loosely based on the true story of Mark Yavorsky, is, "The Mystery Isn't Who. But Why." Unfortunately it's pretty clear from watching the film why Brad McCullum -- the fictionalized Yarovsky -- (played by Shannon) killed his mother: he was nuts and she was a domineering, infantilizing monster.

In the wake of his mother's murder, we learn via flashbacks and anecdotes from his intimates that McCullum hasn't been the same since returning from a trip to South America.

"I am going to stunt my inner growth. I think I shall become a Muslim -- call me Farouk," declares McCullum in telling his friends he's thought better of going on kayaking down the raging Urubamba River (site of Herzog's "Aguiree: Wraith of God"), a journey which ultimately killed his traveling companions.

But there's no point in the film where we see McCullum as even a marginally functional adult. We're told he was at one time a gifted basketball player and supposedly a talented actor who was kicked out of a production of Orestes, in which his character was to kill his own mother. Bizarrely, it takes the play's director some 20 minutes after being called to the scene to mention this detail to the cops.

That McCullum's girlfriend Ingrid (Chloe Sevigny) would even give this guy the time of day, to say nothing of get engaged to him, is far past believable.

All this nonsense could be excusable if it had been artfully done, but the most interesting shot in the whole film -- maybe the only standout, in fact -- is of a tin of oatmeal rolling down a driveway. And the acting is mostly over-mannered, with Udo Kier clutching his ascot, Grace Zabriskie souring her puss further and further, Shannon going too deeply into a pseudo-catatonia and a bewildered Dafoe trying to make sense of a ridiculous situation.

Between the ostriches, mysterious midgets, out-of-nowhere homophobia and racism and old blues played on a boom box, to say nothing of the presence of Zabriskie and Dafoe, Lynch's influence weighs heavily on this film. But Herzog's film lacks Lynch wit and winks, it feels strange just for sthe sake of strange.

It's easy to see why Herzog was attracted to Yarovsky's story, but we never see any of McCullum's descent into matricidal madness and little of "My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done" rings true, making it hard to care.

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