My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done

Time Out New York Project: Issue #741, December 10-16, 2009


Dir. Werner Herzog. 2009. N/R. 93mins. Michael Shannon, Willem Dafoe, Grace Zabriskie.

A San Diego man (Shannon) kills his mother (Zabriskie) with a sword and a detective (Dafoe) pieces together the bizarre backstory that led to the crime. That’s the basic outline for Werner Herzog’s latest, but it doesn’t begin to encapsulate the mesmerizing strangeness of this hi-def feature, which recalls the cowriter-director’s 1976 masterpiece Heart of Glass

In that earlier film — set in a Bavarian glass-blowing village — most of the cast performed their roles under hypnosis. There’s a similar sense of entrancement here, as if everyone is going through the motions of a police procedural while subject to the will of a mystical puppet master. 

The trick is that Shannon’s cutthroat knows his wires are being pulled: In flashbacks, Herzog shows the character slowly attaining enlightenment while wandering the Peruvian wilds. Then he does everything possible to become an insignificant part of his own story, which veers off on increasingly outlandish tangents — a visit to an ostrich farm run by a racist Brad Dourif is a particular highlight — that only deepen the film’s numerous enigmas. It’s likely that only Herzog would dare to, and succeed at, resolving this singular cinematic object by contemplating the fate of an abandoned basketball.—Keith Uhlich