A Better Lieutenant 

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My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done
Directed by Werner Herzog

For all the self-promotion and critical reinforcement of Werner Herzog's wild-man-with-a-camera myth, it's the German filmmaker's foreboding sorrow—especially poignant in his mid-to-late-70s run of The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser, Heart of Glass, Stroszek and Nosferatu—that's made for his best, most enduring work. Following in this vein, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done forms the depressive art house counterpart to recent manic B-movie Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, with Michael Shannon the saturnine Bruno S. to Nic Cage's gonzo Klaus Kinski.

Shannon plays Brad McCullum, a fictional version of real-life Mark Yavorsky, former high school basketball star and mother-killer, whose mental deterioration is charted throughout a hostage drama in a series of friend-related flashbacks. McCullum's case couldn't be more textbook, both in psychological and Herzogian terms: overbearing, infantilizing mom (Grace Zabriskie) exacerbates the son's fatherless Oedipal trauma, her murder foreshadowed in his over-enthusiastic performance of Orestes for a production directed by Udo Kier's perplexed drama instructor and starring scared girlfriend Chloe Sevigny. But due to Shannon's simmering, melancholic portrayal of McCullum and Herzog's brooding, silhouetted lighting, My Son evokes the ineffability of derangement—viewed with almost elegiac tranquility, McCullum's hallucination of god on an oatmeal box and obsessive desire to visit "the sick in general" become mysterious cries for help rather than freakish displays of weirdness. While too often Herzog gawks at Shannon's man-child in contrived, overly "weird" fourth wall-breaking, dwarf-and ostrich-flanked tableaux—even as he leaves aside the question of why no one steered McCullum to the nearest psychiatrist—My Son suggests madness not as visionary psychosis, but as disturbed, unapproachable loneliness.

Opens December 11

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