Monday, 17 January 2011

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done: review

A man wielding a samurai sword talks to his hick uncle about giant chickens whilst a dwarf stands mutely in the background on top of a giant hewn tree stump: yes, it's what we've all been waiting for - Philip's dream diary! Actually, no, come back - it's what we really have all been waiting for - a collaboration between oneiric aeronauts Werner Herzog and David Lynch. When I heard about this film (from one of those snazzy little New Yorker reviews that make you realise why you shell out five quid for it every now and again) I stuck the review to my board and waited and waited... I got the DVD for Christmas, and watched it last night.

On one level, it is supposedly a true story, about a young man who goes insane and kills his mother in front of their neighbours. On another, it is a retelling of Aeschylus' Oresteia. This is the level I was most interested in (although it would be fascinating to read details of the case). There was no suggestion of a skeleton in the family closet: Brad (played with astonishing, almost automaton-like power by Michael Shannon) was a strange man who lived with his mother in a house inhabited (and decorated) by flamingos. It was his closeness to his mother that provided the necessary motive, (rather than Clytemnestra's killing of Agamemnon.) She was ably played by Grace Zabriskie as a neurotic, gurning control-freak who swanned around in padded dressing gowns and twisted her hands a lot. She reminded me, in fact, of a detail from a performance of the Oresteia I saw about eleven years ago, when a camera was used to focus in on Clytemnestra's twisting hands as she talked to the audience. Brad, perhaps escaping his mother, perhaps seeking something else, goes to Peru with some friends; when they all die, drowned in white water rapids, except him, he believes he has been saved by an 'inner voice'. He starts to obey this voice, which causes him to change his life drastically.

The action takes place from the finding of the body of Brad's mother; a siege of Brad's house begins; it ends with his arrest (unity of time and place). There are suitable flashbacks as narrated by the two people closest to Brad (apart from mummy dearest, of course): his girlfriend (acted with gamine charm by the doe-like Chloe Sevigny), and a theatre director (Udo Kier looking and speaking with a high degree of European camposity.) Willem Defoe plays the (extremely polite) policeman. The diction is often quite high - the title of the film comes from the last words Brad's mother says to him as he kills her.

Brad has taken the lead role in a production of the Oresteia: its themes and resonances begin to obsess him deeply. They fit in with his own increasingly skewed view of the world, in which he must 'razzle them. Dazzle them.' His hallucinations lead him to see God in a can of oatmeal; his uncle provides a disturbingly vivid vision of the apocalpyse (which, despite it concerning giant chickens, is oddly effective. Hence the dwarf and the stump. You'll just have to watch it.)

When the SWAT team swarms over Brad's bright pink house it's as if the Furies have descended upon the house of Atreus - that house, bathed in blood from Tantalus to Orestes, generation after generation of cannibals, killers. (Incidentally, I've often wondered what it would be like to sit in on a gathering of the Atreidae. 'So, Electra, been up to much recently?' 'Well, after Orestes and I killed mum, we thought we'd go and visit our supposedly dead sister - it turned out after all that daddy hadn't killed her, instead Artemis - thank the gods - had substituted a deer! Fancy a chop? I hope that grandfather hasn't gone wild again... talking of which, anyone seen Pelops?')

Whereas the end of Aeschylus' play suppresses the terrible wild justice of the Erinyes, and replaces it with the formal justice of Athena, here there was ambiguity. Would Brad's insanity play a factor? A final image, of a basketball left by Brad in a tree in the hope that a boy would find it, provides a haunting sense of tantalising (ha!) redemption - but compromised. When a boy does pick up the ball, is he merely carrying on the cycle, or is he ending it?

All in all, a psychotically interesting brew, scored with jazz and cellos blazing, and with sudden static moments underscoring the action that are striking when they happen and gain a new layer of meaning at the end. A loopy delight. Now, back to those chickens...

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? [DVD] [2009]

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