Sunday, March 27, 2011

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? (2009)

The true story of Mark Yavorsky, who stabbed his mother with a sabre while under the influence of Aeschylus is a strange one. It’s also bait for Werner Herzog, who obviously has a penchant for stories of the lone individual – and so much the better if that individual happens to be unstable (see also: almost every Herzog film). In ‘My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?’ Herzog has kept the matricidal component of Yavorsky's story, while substituting his own background and resolution. What results is a chilling, deliberately paced film about madness, and about being blind to that madness.

The film is direct and to the point; rather than build to a dénouement, it starts with one. Within the first ten minutes, we know that Brad (Herzog has changed Mark’s name to Brad McCullum) has killed his mother and is holed up in a house across the street from the crime, surrounded by the police. We also know that this remarkable event is the central event of the movie; the mysteries lie in how this came about, and how it will end.

What follows is a series of flashbacks interspersed with the ongoing standoff, where the lead detective, played by Willem Dafoe, interviews Brad’s fiancé (Chloë Sevigny) and a theater director of a production of ‘The Euminedes’(played by Udo Kier), which Brad had participated in. We garner from them that Brad has apparently been mad for quite a while, given to rambling outbursts that sound vaguely significant but have no connection to reality or the subject at hand. It's striking that the characters around him have dismissed this behavior, or shut their eyes to its true implications, even as they are disturbed and occasionally frightened by it. Is this who we are? Do we blind ourselves to madness, hoping that it's simply quirks or eccentricity? Unfortunately, the events in Arizona this year have made this question a more poignant one, one that inevitably and unwittingly crept into my mind. But it's a worthy question: Is there a reason that we choose not to see mental illness in people, even when it's glaringly obvious? For when the indications of mental illness are this glaring, it seems that willful blindness, not unwitting ignorance must be the reason for not recognizing Brad's condition for what it is.

The depth of Brad's insanity is depicted quite convincingly by Michael Shannon. It’s not manic or frantic, and he doesn’t yell or scream. Rather, there is a menace that emanates from Shannon’s eyes, a coldness and detachment from humanity that is emphasized by his desultory rants.  Most unnervingly is how Shannon plays Brad as calm and collected before launching into nonsensical diatribes that make you wonder just what could be going on in the head of a person who talks like this. Unpredictability is a key component to the fear that Brad's character evokes. There's a dread that we feel, a presage of some indeterminate, yet ill act - but of course, we know just what occurs. The film's score and  the long, slow camera shots heighten the ominous vibes.

When we reach the scene of Brad's matricide, retold by a witness, we know exactly what's going to happen, and how it's going to end. As the scene moves forward, the tension grows ever more minatory - why? We know the result, indeed we feel, as Brad must too, that it's inevitable, that this murder must happen. Yet we dread it all the same. As he barks at a witness, "Kill me. Strike me down before I do it," we vainly encourage this, but we know that Brad, driven as he is by his demons, will not stop. And so he slays his mother, and we recoil.

We never feel sympathy for Brad, interestingly enough, because we've never been presented with a 'Brad' who's not completely insane. Perhaps we may have been able to partially excuse his actions if we'd been shown a more convincing picture of why he went insane. If Herzog had posited that his mother's insistent meddling and insouciant intrusions on his life were somehow the cause of his insanity, and his crime was some version of 'I've had enough of this,' then we might be able to understand, perhaps not empathize, but at least see reason in his action. As it is, we find no reason, just madness. We do not view him as driven by events, and we barely see any humanity within him. He's turned somehow into a repulsive beast who acts without motive. This type of madness, this type of madman, is terrifying precisely because of his inscrutability; we cannot understand, and we cannot predict what he will do, and so we fear.

Incidentally, you can find a great, terse interview with Herzog about 'My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?' here. You gotta love a guy who interviews this way:
DD: Are you a workaholic?
Werner Herzog:
Please don’t believe that I am one or that I am working at a hectic pace! I work quietly and I'm very focused. It’s like open-heart surgery: you don’t go for the appendix, you go straight for the heart.

DD: Do you use storyboards?
Werner Herzog:
No, that’s an instrument of the cowards.

DD: Where does your inspiration come from?
Werner Herzog:
The films come at me like burglars in the night, like home invasion. I never make a choice about what I should do next, I just do what is most urgent right now. We are sitting here together and I have five burglars in my kitchen already.

1 comment:

  1. I have a bigger crush on Herzog with every interview I read. It's even better if you're imagining his voice as you read.