Elaborating on his new career as the master of the jive-talking, echt-American, extravagantly titled faux–straight-to-DVD policier, Werner Herzog contrives to have My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done pick up, more or less, in the wacky realm where Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans left off. Mexican corrida music serenades a freight train rumbling through the biliously tinted sagebrush, perhaps en route to suburban San Diego where local police are coping with a situation: A matricidal maniac, Brad McCullum (played with total conviction by a glowering Michael Shannon), is holed up in the family ranch house with a couple of hostages. (Their identities make for the movie’s best and best-telegraphed joke.)
Although based on the true story of an unstable actor who, cast as Orestes in Sophocles’ Electra, so identified with the role that he actually killed his mother, My Son plays as one long, shaggy jape. Brad’s clueless fiancée, Ingrid (no stretch for Chloë Sevigny), sits around sipping coffee and regaling an absurdly solicitous detective (Willem Dafoe) with tales of Brad’s lunacy. Flashbacks show him running amok in Peru (the location for Herzog’s greatest tale of madness, Aguirre), ragging on his late mother (pop-eyed Grace Zabriskie, a favorite creature of executive producer David Lynch), and making a scene at the local naval hospital where the staff objects to his plan to comfort the afflicted with embroidered gift-shop pillows. From time to time, Ingrid is spelled as a raconteur by Brad’s erstwhile director (Herzog’s countryman, Udo Kier, amusingly epicene in his mimed concern).
Non sequiturs proliferate—particularly on the family ostrich farm run by Brad’s uncle (Brad Dourif). And whenever things get slow, Brad plays his recording of ’20s guitar evangelist Washington Phillip’s sweetly nutso “I Am Born to Preach the Gospel”—a signifier of the inner voice that prompts him to find God on a box of oatmeal, brandish an outsize coffee cup emblazoned “Razzle Dazzle,” or complain to Ingrid that the sun always rises in the east (“Bra-a-a-d!” she whines).
Everything about this berserk, essentially static procedural is just crazy enough to be true. In any case, Herzog has gone beyond Good and Evil to reinvent himself as a candidate for the wiggiest director of comedy in America today.