I was about to begin this sentence with “Werner Herzog’s latest film…”, but it turns out that the always prolific Herzog has already completed two documentaries since he finished My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? In 2009. Anyway, at least I can write “Werner Herzog relatively recent film is a successful experiment in transplanting Greek tragedy to modern-day suburban America.”
It comes as no surprise that My Son was written by Herbert Golder, a professor of Classical Civilization at Boston University and has translated Sophocles into English. Golder was intrigued by the 1978 Greek film A Dream of Passion, about an actress playing Medea from Greek mythology on the stage, and as part of her research for the role seeks out a woman, played by Ellen Burstyn, who is in jail for murdering her children. A case of life imitating myth, but it was still locked within the fictional world of film. Then one morning in 1979, Mark Yavorsky, a 34-year-old former college basketball star, walked across the street in a quiet section of San Diego, where he found his mother in a neighbor’s house where she had taken refuge, and stabbed her to death with an antique sword. The story enthralled the local community and had parallels to the Greek myth of Oretes. The fact that Yavorsky had been cast as Oretes in a play at University of California, San Diego before he was cut for constantly disrupting rehearsals with his bizarre ideas. Golder began collecting newspaper clippings on the case, and eventually began meeting with Yavorsky and recording their conversations. Golder was a friend of Herzog, and began talking to him about collaborating on a screenplay. The project lay dormant for decades, and during this time Herzog met Yavorsky after his release from prison. The director found him argumentative and was frightened by the fact that he had constructed a sort of shrine in his house to Aguirre, the Wrath of God, one of Herzog’s films from the ‘70s.
Yavorsky died in the meantime, and Golder and Herzog finally got together and put together the script in four and a half days, based on a huge pile of documents that Golder had accumulated. Herzog has said that 70% of the film is fictionalized, but on the other hand, some of the scariest bits of dialogue are direct quotes from Yavorsky, such as the troubled man using a laundry room for four and a half years as a place to cry until it was renovated and turned into something else, and his costar in the play, who plays the murdered mother of his character, being told to twitch her feet as she lay dead on the stage “so he can see his mother’s feet dancing her to heaven.”
In the film, the killer, renamed as Brad McCullum, holds off the police by claiming he has hostages. This did not happen in the real case, in which Yavorsky immediately surrendered himself and made a full confession. Herzog mainly uses this as a narrative framing device. The homicide detective played by Wilhelm Defoe interviews people involved in the case, flashbacks reveal his troubled history and pose the question not of why he did what he did. The usual suspense in a murder story—the questions of who did it and will they be caught—are entirely irrelevant. Herzog said “I wanted to do something intelligent where an audience would know three minutes into the film, would know what had happened. An elderly woman had been killed with a sword. Secondly, you would know who the murder was. And finally you would know where he was. From then on, you do not know what is going to happen one moment after another.” Indeed, as the flashbacks move closer and closer to the murder, Brad’s erratic behavior becomes an increasing cause of concern for his fiancée (Chloë Sevigny) and his drama director (Udo Kier). Michael Shannon, who has played eccentric characters in Cecil B. DeMented and Grand Theft Parsons, is truly frightening as Brad, even though we never actually see the murder.
Herzog approached David Lynch, who acted as producer, with his idea of getting back to “essential filmmaking,” using good stories, small budgets of $2 million or less, and the best actors they can get. My Son is the first product of this new approach (or return to an old approach), and I for one hope that more films like this are made.