My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

Venice Film Festival -- Competition

VENICE -- European auteur cinema meets police procedural in "My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?," a small, offbeat work that looks somewhat hastily put together. It has the distinction of being the second feature directed by Werner Herzog to be screened in competition at this year's Venice Film Festival, where it competed against the director's police thriller "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans." In "My Son," Herzog unleashes a wilder side to tell the story of a mentally fragile young stage actor who, obsessed with a Greek tragedy he's rehearsing, kills his own mother. The story is riddled with salutes to executive producer David Lynch and the film seems pointed hopefully in the direction of Lynch's audiences.

Based on a real-life drama, the main action takes place during the police stakeout of a suburban home in San Diego, where a woman has been murdered. Detective Hank Havenhurst (Willem Dafoe) arrives on the scene and, in classic police dialogue, attempts to reason with the "suspect" Brad (Michael Shannon), who has barricaded himself inside with two hostages. The neighbors recount how they watched as he ran his mother (Grace Zabriskie) through with a sword. When his girlfriend Ingrid (Chloe Sevigny) and his director Lee Meyers (Udo Kier) arrive, they identify it as the sword he was using in rehearsals of "Orestes," the matricide classic; they then fill Hank in on Brad's gradual disconnect from reality.

Part tongue-in-cheek send-up of American TV movies, part vintage Herzog mind-bender, the film moves unselfconsciously from pink flamingos to whitewater rafting in the mountains of Peru to what look like shots of Mongolia. Creepy touches recall early Lynch, like the toy Brad sends to the police that plays "I Was Born to Preach the Gospel," or a visit to his uncle's ostrich farm.

The American dialogue seems stilted even in the mouths of the experienced cast, but maybe that's part of Herzog's spoof on the genre. The cast is actually well blended and amusing. Though he elicits little viewer sympathy, Shannon does a convincing job of acting seriously mad in a film that is off-the-wall to begin with. Udo Kier's discourse on Greek tragedy is an appreciable extra.

Production companies: Industrial Entertainment, Absurda a David Lynch Company, Paper Street Films
Cast: Michael Shannon, Willem Dafoe, Chloe Sevigny, Udo Kier, Michael Pena, Grace Zabriskie, Brad Dourif, Irma P. Hall, Loretta Devine
Director: Werner Herzog
Screenwriters: Herbert Golder, Werner Herzog
Executive producers: David Lynch, Stian Morck, Julius Morck, Ali Rounaghi, Jeff Rice, Benji Kohn, Austin Stark, Bingo Gubelmann, Christ Papavasiliou
Producer: Eric Bassett, Ken Meyer
Director of photography: Peter Zeitlinger
Production designers: Tyson Estes, Danny Caldwell
Music: Ernst Reijseger
Costumes: Mikel Padilla
Editors: Joe Bini, Omar Daher
Sales Agent: Absurda
90 minutes