Werner Herzog's latest madman to illuminate the screen obviously doesn't star his infamous collaborator, the late Klaus Kinski, or even the relatively more sedate Bad Lieutenant Nicolas Cage. Instead, Herzog's star is Michael Shannon, the Oscar nominee whose performance as a man recently released from a mental institution was the best thing about Revolutionary Road. In Revolutionary Road, Shannon's character John Givings tells Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio), "Plenty of people are on to the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness."
It's a familiar trope, using the mentally ill to "see" things that other characters are blind to, but in My Son Shannon's Brad McCullum grows more and more out of touch with reality until he believes God lives in his house, in a package of oatmeal.
My Son begins near the end. Two detectives (Willem Dafoe and Michael Peña) are on their way to a crime scene in a drowsy neighborhood of San Diego. On their way in, Detective Hank Havenhurst (Dafoe) is stopped by a neighbor holding a coffee cup, who amiably mumbles, "Razzle dazzle them. Razzle dazzle them," takes a sip from his cup (which reads "Razzle Dazzle"), and walks quietly away.
When they arrive, they find a dead body, the murder weapon nearby, and, strangely enough, the two witnesses still sitting in the chairs they were in when the murder occurred. They learn the suspect was the gangly neighbor with the coffee cup, and indeed, one of the witnesses says, "Brad McCullum. He did it. He stabbed her. Ever since he came back from from Peru, he's been strange. Well, not so much strange, as... different." Cut to Peru, where Brad watches his friends smoke weed, meditate, and head to their deaths in high-rising rapids. He intones, "I'm not going to take your vitamin pills. I'm not going to drink your herbal tea. I'm not going to the sweat lodge with an 108-year-old Native American who reads Hustler magazine and smokes Kool cigarettes. I'm not going to discover my boundaries. I am going to stunt my inner growth. I think I shall I become a Muslim. Call me Faruk."
Back in California, the apparently once-promising basketball player still lives with his mother, who solicitously offers him and his fiancée Ingrid (Chloe Sevigny) brownies as they get ready for bed and, in a later scene, tries to feed him at the dinner table. These creepy domestic scenes are obviously at the root of Brad's mental illness, which seems to escape both Ingrid and Brad's friend, play director Lee Meyers (Udo Kier). The movie flashes between Brad, who is at his house brandishing a shotgun and threatening that he has two hostages, and stories from Ingrid and Lee as Havenhurst interviews them.
The stories they share veer into Lynch-land, which is only to be expected since Lynch is a collaborator and exec producer, and the movie was produced by Lynch's company Absurda. This does lend itself to occasional, perhaps unintentional, hilarity, like when Brad takes Lee to his uncle's ostrich farm and an ostrich almost manages to swallow Lee's glasses. His uncle, played by Brad Dourif, imagines a fantastical commercial where a midget rides a miniature pony as they're being chased by one of his famously overgrown roosters named Willard. Cut to a triptych of Uncle Ted, Verne Troyer in a tuxedo standing on a the stump of a giant tree behind and above them, and Brad, which the camera lingers on for far too long. Ingrid has to rescue him from Tijuana where he's in a hotel "bringing heaven to earth" by dangling a light bulb above a handful of prescription glasses arranged in a circle. He demands to be taken to the Veterans Hospital to see "the sick," then buys an armful of pillows at the gift shop. Ingrid mentions offhand that she had hoped Brad was going to the hospital for himself to get treated for his depression, but this is the only indication that anyone is aware that Brad is growing increasingly delusional and dangerous.
They both notice that Brad is increasingly agitated about the play he's performing in, part of The Oresteia trilogy, and specifically the scene where he, as Orestes, kills his mother Clytemnestra to avenge his father Agamemnon's murder. Brad even insists on obtaining a real sword for a prop, which, of course, he later uses as the murder weapon. And Ingrid plays Clytemnestra, adding a nice frisson of Oedipal ick. Eventually, Lee has to throw Brad out of the play because he gets so worked up about it, but still, no one steps in to help Brad as he gets sucked farther and farther into his delusions.
This sort of slow-motion obliviousness with chunks of what-the-hell thrown in colors the entire movie. Occasionally, Ingrid will reveal details that indicate she knows Brad is way off, like how weird it was that Brad would whisper to her during the play to move her feet after he's murdered her because he wants to see his mother's feet dance their way to heaven. Otherwise, what seems so forehead-slappingly obvious to the viewer completely eludes our characters.
Visually, the only really interesting parts to look at were those aforementioned nods to Lynch, especially the surreal McCullum home and its pink flamingo-themed décor. (Another nod to Lynch is that Brad's mom is played by Grace Zabriskie from Twin Peaks and Wild at Heart; she was also in the HBO show Big Love with Sevigny.) The cinematography remains fairly flat with the exception of a scene in an airport in Calgary where Brad sees "the tunnel of time" in the glass enclosures around them and in a scene in Peru that uses a camera with a wide angle lens mounted to Shannon's chest, giving the viewer the feeling of Brad's increasing confusing and anxiety, the same technique used in Mean Streets in the bar scene with Harvey Keitel.
Dafoe chews a little scenery but for the most part stays in line with the rest of the cast's flat affectation. It's hard to tell if that's on purpose as an allusion to the play within the movie, or if it's simply bad acting. Shannon, who is known for hitting it out of the park no matter how small his part, gives an alarming performance, but even as his agitation worsens and his illness escalates, it still feels flat, like playing the same note louder and louder until an unsatisfactory climax is achieved.