DIRECTED BY: Werner Herzog

FEATURING: Michael Shannon, Willem Dafoe, , Chloë Sevigny, Udo Kier,

PLOT: The story of a young man’s mental breakdown is told in flashbacks as friends and family are interviewed by a detective outside the home where the killer is holed up with a couple of hostages.

Still from My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s twice as weird as Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Werner Herzog’s other 2009 offering, but only half as entertaining.

COMMENTS:  No movie in the world that could live up to the promise of the credit, “David Lynch Presents a Werner Herzog Film.”  My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done is among those movies.  Based on a real-life case with the details changed drastically, the film begins with a gruesome murder then proceeds to explain the mystery through flashbacks and trips inside the diseased mind of the killer.  The main problem with the movie is that the answer we get for the slayer’s motivation amounts to little more than “because he’s nuts.”  There’s a top-notch weird cast here, but the performances are uneven.  With his intense eyes under a lowering brow and odd non-sequiturs, Michael Shannon (last seen ’round these parts as the paranoid insectophobe in Bug) is credibly crazed.  In fact, Shannon’s been acting so off-kilter since returning from a kayaking trip to Peru that fiancée Chloë Sevigny and pal Udo Kier don’t appear at all shocked to find themselves being interviewed by homicide detective Willem Dafoe outside the flamingo-pink home where the madman has holed up with two hostages.  Kier, who’s just replaced Shannon in his avant-garde production of the Oresteia because the actor was getting too excitable when asked to play the scene where he murders his mother, is more an outside observer of the man’s madness than a participant, so his cool, politely dismayed reaction to the tragedy is understandable and even a little amusing. On the other hand, it’s hard to figure out why Sevigny is going full steam ahead with honeymoon plans after Shannon tells her he sees God on a box of Quaker Oats, goes to Tijuana to buy five sets of prescription eyeglasses for a strange ritual, and nearly attacks her after she questions his plans to buy a home next door to his mother, ending the conversation by suggesting they should live on the moon.  Perhaps the lack of distress she shows during her police interviews is meant to convey her relief at escaping the engagement without a messy breakup instead of her shock at the unexpected news.  Most actors can sleepwalk their way through a role as a homicide detective, but we never really expected to see Willem Dafoe half-assing it onscreen (in his defense, there’s really not that much to his part besides asking questions and looking surprised at the answers).  Grace Zabriske, on the other hand, gives it her all as Shannon’s passive-aggressive mother, intruding on the young lovers’ private conversations with offers of brownies and jello and smiling awkwardly for uncomfortable lengths of time, quietly extorting a thank you for her efforts.  Brad Dourif is also memorable as the bigoted poultry-raising uncle who suggests that, in this family, the crazy gene is carried on the Y-chromosome.  With the narrative lacking and the performances patchy, we’re left waiting for the few moments of low-key weirdness for entertainment.  There’s a live freeze frame that’s reminiscent of the old “Police Squad!” ending credits, a scene where Uyghur men with shaggy eyebrows stare at Shannon incredulously as he walks through a dusty marketplace in Nowhere, and, most memorably, a scene deep inside the killer’s mind where Dourif shares his idea for a commercial in which a giant rooster chases a tiny man on a miniature horse around the world’s largest tree stump.  The use of music in the film is impressive (almost Lynchian), with a dissonant cello accompanying the play rehearsals and mournful Mexican ballads playing an unexpected counterpoint to certain scenes.  What Have Ye Done divided critics and audiences alike, with a few calling it a masterpiece and many calling it a major disappointment.  It doesn’t really belong at either extreme; I’d characterize it as a minor disappointment, a fairly average weird movie that will alienate the mainstream and mildly please those of us with a taste for madness.

Other than lending his name to the production, there’s little evidence David Lynch had much of anything to do with the film: all the credit, blame or indifference belongs to Herzog.  The DVD contains an interesting interview with the director and co-writer Herbert Golder that made me wonder if a documentary on Mark Yavorsky, the real life killer on whom the movie’s plot was loosely based, might not have made a more effective film.  The disc also contains the short film “Plastic Bag,” by Ramin Bahrani and narrated by Herzog, which tells the existential story of a the titular object’s journey through life.  At 18 minutes the short may be a bit overlong, but it’s very beautifully shot and affecting at times.  “Plastic Bag” is available to watch on YouTube.


“Weird at heart and wired on top. A pointless, plotless, spaced oddity and a waste of all the talent involved.”–Andy Lowe, Total Film (contemporaneous)

2 thoughts on “CAPSULE: MY SON, MY SON, WHAT HAVE YE DONE (2009)”

  1. This post was lost in the Great Server Crash of 2010; the following comment was recovered from Google’s cache.

    Ropin’ Rodeo Nate says I really wanted this to be awesome, but your review (per usual) is spot-on – there are some great little bits (Grace Z., Brad D., the soundtrack) but most of the main actors/parts don’t add up to much.

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