My Son is based on the true story of a college student who mentally unraveled while acting in a production of a classic Greek play and transferred the tragedy’s matricide from stage to reality by impaling his mother with a prop sword. In the hands of truth-bender Herzog, the story takes imaginative and often head-scratching turns.
Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road) is an uncorked bottle of rage and torment as Brad, an actor who barricades himself with hostages inside his flamingo-decorated San Diego home after becoming a suspect in his mother’s murder.
A detective (Willem Dafoe) manages the crisis from the street, fielding bizarre requests from the unstable armed man inside.
With help from Brad’s friends and family members (played by Udo Kier, Chloe Sevingy and others), the detective slowly learns of Brad’s mental collapse and erratic actions in the days leading to the murder. Flashbacks replay these events, following Brad on a haunting, ill-fated river adventure in Peru; through tense play rehearsals; to visits with his racist, homophobic ostrich-raising uncle (Brad Dourif); and, most importantly, as he interacts with his overbearing, perpetually sunny mother (a perfect Grace Zabriskie).
Foreboding and dread permeates this back-and-forth. Herzog’s trademark hand-held camerawork snakes with a sinister voyeurism, eying moments that feel privileged. And Amon Tobin’s soundtrack amplifies the growing danger in a manner that recalls the sound usage in Lynch’s work.
A dark levity counteracts the downbeat, though. Herzog and Lynch’s straight-faced eccentricity is on full force. When ostriches eat eye-wear, coffee mugs plug “Razzle Dazzle” and basketballs sit in trees, one feels as if the filmmakers revel in the escalating absurdities that their characters navigate.
Despite the narrative pleasures, My Son goes nowhere. Episodes jump backward and forward in time, but the story of a man driven to murder lies flat underneath. Perhaps this was intentional — the final scene is the ultimate nose-thumb to the audience — but had the plot been developed further, the film would have been an absolute powerhouse.
Bonus features include a commentary track with the always entertaining Herzog, an interview with Herzog and co-screenwriter Herbert Golder and the Ramin Bahrani short, Plastic Bag, narrated by Herzog. Grade: B-