The only thing I like better than clumsy, obvious, expository dialogue is clumsy, obvious, expository dialogue that is trying very hard not to be obviously and clumsily expository. And My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done opens with exactly that kind of dialogue.
Willem Dafoe is driving a car, and Michael Peña is sitting next to him. They are wearing cheap suits and drinking coffee. Now, if you've ever been to a movie, you know that two men in cheap suits drinking coffee in a car = cops. But in case this is, in fact, your first trip to the cinema, Dafoe then launches into a long story that, while utterly unrelated to the rest of this film, does include him mentioning at least four times that he's a police officer. And then he finishes it off with, "I'm not sure who's worse: us cops or the fucking criminals." Just in case you didn't get that (a) he's a cop, and (b) this movie was written by a 19-year-old film-studies major who thinks he's just blown your mind.
Only, and this is really strange, the movie was not written by a 19-year-old. Instead, it was co-written by one of the greatest living filmmakers in the world, Werner Herzog.
With the shaky, handheld camera, acting that looks like it was performed by robots and directed by zombies, and a soundtrack that does nothing but swell with eerie tones, My Son, My Son is not exactly Herzog at his most subtle or precise. Instead, it seems like a film that was made after Herzog lost a bet.
The plot, like much of what Dick Cheney says, was inspired by a true story. But it wasn't just torn from the headlines. Instead, it was torn from the headlines, thrown on the floor, and filmed as it landed. It starts with Dafoe and Peña responding to a call concerning a dead body in a suburban San Diego home. It turns out that elderly Mrs. McCullum (Grace Zabriskie) has been slain with a sword. Her son (Michael Shannon) is the obvious suspect, since he keeps telling everyone that the oatmeal is talking to him and that God told him to change his name to Farouk and that he should quit whitewater rafting.
Also, he was just kicked out of a theatrical production where he had the role of a man who kills his mother with a sword. So all signs point to crazy man. And Shannon plays the part with big, zany eyes that he must have borrowed from a racist Looney Tunes cartoon from the '30s.
Which is fine; it's not like naturalism is a requirement for good acting. But the rest of the cast seems to have been infected by the same thespian virus as Shannon. Everyone declaims their lines like Dadaists on Ritalin, or stares blankly at the sky, or just weirds it up. Zabriskie, who played Laura Palmer's mom on Twin Peaks, is particularly bizarre. In one scene, she delivers cookies to her son, and then the camera sits on her for two minutes as her face freezes in a cross between a smile and that look you get when you realize you've just eaten human flesh.
That shot, and others, hold for an uncomfortably long time. And at one point, crazy Brad McCullum looks at some tubular architecture and declares that it's a time tunnel. In a flashback, he tells his hippie friends that he can see the future. Later, he is disturbed by the presence of Jell-O®-brand gelatin.
All of these things indicate that Herzog wants to play with the notion of time, or the frozenness of time, or the jiggliness of Jell-O®-brand gelatin. I don't know. He just made a really weird film that, unlike his other weird films, is also intensely amateurish. Maybe amateurism is more tied to the frozenness of time than professionalism is. Maybe Herzog is playing a joke on all of us. Maybe he's just impressed with how easy it is to grab a video camera and start shooting, and so, like a million young people who want to be Werner Herzog, he decided to make a movie.
But unlike those youngsters, he already is Werner Herzog. Which must be weird for him. If you want to help his feelings, you could go see My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done. But the title pretty much gives away the whole film, in that this is a film made by someone who thought My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done was a good title for a movie.