'My Son, My Son': Matricide The Herzog Way

Michael Shannon, Grace Zabriskie and Chloe Sevigny i i

Family Values: My Son, My Son takes a fragmented, surrealist look at the life of a grad student (Michael Shannon, with Chloe Sevigny, right) who kills his eccentric mother (Grace Zabriskie, left) as he spirals into what looks a lot like madness. Industrial Entertainment hide caption

itoggle caption Industrial Entertainment
Michael Shannon, Grace Zabriskie and Chloe Sevigny

Family Values: My Son, My Son takes a fragmented, surrealist look at the life of a grad student (Michael Shannon, with Chloe Sevigny, right) who kills his eccentric mother (Grace Zabriskie, left) as he spirals into what looks a lot like madness.

Industrial Entertainment

My Son, My Son,
What Have Ye Done

  • Director: Werner Herzog
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 93 minutes

Not rated

With: Willem Dafoe, Chloe Sevigny, Michael Pena, Michael Shannon

If you didn't already know that David Lynch had a hand in producing My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, it wouldn't take long to make the connection. Packed with Lynchian signatures — sudden lapses into the surreal, a curiosity about big birds and little people — and directed by Werner Herzog, the film is a bizarre merger of two uncommonly individual and idiosyncratic styles. Add a lead actor (Michael Shannon) who has constructed a career from characters on the verge of mental breakdown (most recently in The Missing Person and Revolutionary Road), and you have what amounts to a perfect storm of cinematic weirdness.

Loosely based on the horrifying true story of Mark Yarovsky — a San Diego grad student who, after being cast as the matricidal lead in the Greek tragedy Orestes, went on to murder his own mother with an antique saber — My Son resembles the standard crime movie about as much as the dysfunctional family in Precious resembles the Walton clan. Shannon plays Brad Macallum, who, as the movie opens, has just knifed his widowed mum and is holed up in their flamingo-themed home, allegedly with two hostages. Outside, Detective Hank Havenhurst (Willem Dafoe) and his partner (Michael Pena) monitor the scene while a local SWAT team awaits instructions.

Willem Dafoe i i

My Son, My Son is inspired by the true story of Mark Yavorsky, who killed his mother in 1979. After the fictional Brad stabs his mother and barricades himself in her house, Detective Havenhurst (Willem Dafoe, center) arrives to negotiate. hide caption

itoggle caption
Willem Dafoe

My Son, My Son is inspired by the true story of Mark Yavorsky, who killed his mother in 1979. After the fictional Brad stabs his mother and barricades himself in her house, Detective Havenhurst (Willem Dafoe, center) arrives to negotiate.

Bit by bit and flashback by flashback, a portrait of the killer emerges from the recollections of those who saunter up to be questioned by Havenhurst. Brad's colorless fiancee, Ingrid (Chloe Sevigny), bemoans the change in her beloved after a whitewater rafting trip to Peru; his oily theater director (Udo Kier) recalls firing him when his behavior threatened to halt the play's production.

But as the flashbacks accumulate, we begin to realize we're learning next to nothing about Brad's motivation for the crime: His mother (Grace Zabriskie, the ne plus ultra of pursed-lip disapproval) may be suffocatingly needy, but her worst crime appears to be serving up disgusting Jell-O.

What the flashbacks do illuminate is Brad's deteriorating mental state and the hilarious refusal of Ingrid et al. to recognize it. As we accompany Brad from Mexico to China, from an ostrich farm run by his Uncle Ted (a manic Brad Dourif) to the naval hospital where his father died (and where he loudly demands to visit "the sick"), the screenplay (by Herzog and Herbert Golder) carefully avoids the words "late-onset schizophrenia." To his nearest and dearest, Brad is simply a guy who calls himself Farouk and thinks God is conversing with him from a box of Quaker Oats.

With its theatrical line delivery, stagey scene construction and a central performance of unvarying eccentricity, My Son revels in the most alienating impulses of both Lynch and Herzog. (Let us not even discuss the tuxedo-wearing dwarf.) At times, though, the film's very oddness achieves a Twin Peaks level of artful ingenuity, as with the Greek chorus of crime-scene rubberneckers framed in the rear windows of an ambulance, or the glass tunnel of a Canadian airport filmed to look like a wormhole to infinity.

Photographed with bare-bones simplicity by longtime Herzog collaborator Peter Zeitlinger, My Son presents yet another Herzogian hero who views insanity as the only logical response to an insane world. From Fitzcarraldo to Grizzly Man, the director has championed the fiercely alienated and the uniquely possessed: To Herzog, our most lovable misanthropist, that lone penguin wandering off to his death in Encounters at the End of the World might just be the only rational member of his flock.

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