“He claims his name is Farouk, shouts about God and tosses oatmeal at us.” That’s the investigating officer’s assessment of a murder suspect in Werner Herzog’s “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done,” a fruit-loopy new movie.
The audience also has a considerable amount of oatmeal thrown at it, in the form of Herzog’s unpredictable style, left-field dialogue and unexplained eruptions of weirdness.
Herzog, a true original whose fiction films (“Aguirre, the Wrath of God”) and documentaries (“Grizzly Man”) have explored the boundaries of madness, has recently made a sojourn into U.S. indie filmmaking. Last fall’s “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” was an especially mind-bending instance of his dreamy style colliding with a cop movie.
The result there was fascinating. In “My Son, My Son,” it’s mystifying. The material sounds well-suited for Herzog and producer David Lynch: a real-life killing in San Diego a couple of decades ago, in which an unstable young actor murdered his mother.
The murderer had recently been fired from a stage production in which he played Orestes, the mythological character who commits matricide. The mix of theater and life is a point Herzog seizes on, needless to say.
The movie takes place on the day of the murder, as a police officer (Willem Dafoe) pieces together the story from flashbacks provided by the suspect’s fiance (Chloe Sevigny), stage director (Udo Kier) and neighbors (Loretta Devine and Irma P. Hall).
The suspect himself is played by Michael Shannon, that tall, discomfiting actor who’s been working steadily since his Oscar nomination for “Revolutionary Road.” He handles everything Herzog throws at him in this movie, no matter how large the non sequitur.
There is nothing exactly wrong with the setup of the movie, but (in the police-procedural scenes especially), the dialogue is so pedestrian and the delivery so flat, I couldn’t help but assume that Herzog was mounting a kind of parody of the typical cop show.
Herzog might be interested in this murder case, but the freak-show aspects are what rise to the surface, especially when the investigation travels to an ostrich farm run by Brad Dourif, one of filmdom’s reliable crazies.
It’s hard to know what producer Lynch had to do with this, although some scenes play like outtakes from “Twin Peaks,” complete with Lynch regular Grace Zabriskie, who plays Shannon’s overbearing mother in flashbacks, and an appreciation for a good cup of coffee.
If it didn’t have Herzog’s name on it, “My Son, My Son” would be chalked up as an incompetent police picture with a few interestingly weird touches; knowing it’s Herzog, I can see it as a black comedy about cultural strangeness and (maybe) formula movies. But I’m still not sure who’s supposed to sit through this feature-length experiment.