This film deserves—and will surely get—longer, more meticulous, and more analytically robust treatment than this paltry 400-word review can afford. An unlikely and mesmerizing collaboration between Werner Herzog and David Lynch, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done delivers an entire silo of fodder for discussion. Consider this the précis of an imaginary 3,000-word essay.
It's difficult to imagine Herzog and Lynch making a film together—they're both so strong, so distinct in their styles and interests, so excellent in entirely different ways. Lynch likes ghost stories and fantasies, Herzog likes facts and deeds; Lynch favors the ambient eeriness of West Coast suburbs and small towns, Herzog favors the thundering drama of inner cities and Peruvian rivers. Herzog makes dramas. Lynch makes dreams.
But both directors love a good mental breakdown, a story about a brain peeling off from the surface of the real world and growing in on itself. They have fused that mutual motif into a strong, unified collaboration about a wall-eyed young man (Michael Shannon) who goes crazy during a river-rafting trip to Peru, returns to San Diego, stars in a production of The Oresteia, and murders his mother.
Of course, this being Lynch and Herzog, the film isn't about what it's about. My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done feels like a (smooth, never lurching) conversation between the two directors. Lynch brings the flamingos, unsettling cello scores, haunted homes of suburban San Diego, men wearing oxygen masks, the obligatory little person, and some familiar faces (Brad Dourif from Blue Velvet; Grace Zabriskie, who played a crazy mother in Twin Peaks, here playing the crazy mother of the crazy son).
Herzog brings a cop siege, a famous actor playing a protagonist detective (last time it was Nicolas Cage, this time it's Willem Dafoe), a little documentary-style camerawork, long shots of characters' faces and a Mexico border crossing, a clear plot that resolves itself (no guarantee in a Lynch film), and some familiar locations (the Urubamba River, where Herzog also shot Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre: The Wrath of God).
The result is a resonant, moving film of pleasant contrasts and contradictions that feels as claustrophobic as a madman's skull and as wide as the sky above a mountaintop. Just go see it.