"David Lynch presents a Werner Herzog film" — there's a phrase guaranteed to titillate a certain percentage of the filmgoing public. Anyone still reeling from last year's The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans may not be ready for My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, a less accessible tale imprinted with trademark quirks from both its producer and director.
Loosely based on a true case of matricide in San Diego, My Son begins as Brad McCullum (Michael Shannon of 2008's Revolutionary Road) has just used a sword to slay his mother (Grace Zabriskie). As police, led by Detective Hank Havenhurt (Willem Dafoe), gather 'round Mark's pink, flamingo-festooned home — where he's barricaded himself, apparently with hostages — the tale of a son's bizarre downfall is pieced together via flashbacks courtesy of his fiancée, Ingrid (Chloë Sevigny), and ascot-wearing theater director Lee (Udo Kier).
Lee had recently cast aspiring actor Brad in a Greek tragedy as noted mother-killer Orestes — a role that inspired him to borrow the eventual murder weapon from his Uncle Ted (Brad Dourif). But Brad proved too wacko for the stage, interrupting rehearsals to reflect on his glory days as a high school basketball star, and to make pronouncements about the state of the universe. As Ingrid primly explains, Brad hasn't been the same since he returned from a trip to Peru, the only survivor of a rafting trip that apparently visited the setting of Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972). (Peru is only glimpsed in a few scenes, but the locations are indeed authentic.) But Ingrid's description of life at Casa McCullum suggests that all hasn't been well for some time; Mrs. McCullum puts the smother in mother, and Brad's been seeing God in his oatmeal since childhood.
The whole thing, as Brad might say, is a "cosmic melodrama" imbued with just enough surreal and off-putting stylistic choices to alienate general audiences. Ernst Reijseger's score is haunting, often to the point of distraction. A tuxedo-wearing little person appears, maybe as a shout-out to Lynch fans who're hanging on hope that 2006's Inland Empire won't be his last theatrical film. A dinner scene involving Jell-O is capped by a frozen tableau, actors motionless even as the dessert jiggles. Ostriches, only slightly more integrated into the plot than Bad Lieutenant's iguanas, stalk across the screen. Herzog, ever the outsider auteur, may win no new fans with My Son. One senses he's just fine with that.
MY SON, MY SON, WHAT HAVE YE DONE opens Fri/19 at the Castro.