Sunday, February 21, 2010


A long, long train rolls by behind the credits. Havenhurst and Vargas, two homicide detectives from a different (and better, if more conventional) film, have their morning rounds interrupted by an 1154 call. Someone's dead.

The setup for this long-awaited David Lynch/Werner Herzog collaboration is juicy indeed, including a glancing encounter between Havenhurst (Willem Dafoe) and Brad McCullum (Michael Shannon). But once McCullum barricades himself in his home with a pair of hostages, all we can do is watch as the pieces of McCullum's bizarre history assemble, and wait for the situation to reach a boiling point. Or, in this case, not.

Over the course of the last several years, Herzog has been quickly lapsing into self-parody: the anti-nature ranting and bemusement over his human subjects' folly became tiresome in ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD. But while some of his routine had been skewered by the gonzo energy of Nicolas Cage in THE BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS, the familiar Herzog tropes roll by in MY SON, etc. as if on a checklist. Though clearly supported and indulged by producer Lynch here, the styles of the two directors prove less than their sum (and there's some Lynchian checklisting here too, as Grace Zabriskie gives the same performance she's given in every Lynch project she's appeared in since TWIN PEAKS). Herzog tries to accommodate some Lynchian shots of suburban torpor-turned-hell, but his obsession with hard, ego-damaging reality doesn't mesh with Lynch's nightmares.

As for lead Michael Shannon, he offers another dangerously unhinged character to his gallery, but one wonders if he's able to grasp a character whose life is grounded in more conventional psychology. Giving him space here to make the attempt might have lent some context to his escalating derangement, but Shannon plays every scene in the same dully insistent monotone.

There's a growing audience for Herzog's comedy of detachment, and the numerous shots of flamingos and ostriches will surely tickle this crowd (as they did at the screening your proprietor attended). Those hoping that a producer with as strong an auteuristic bent as Herzog's would send him into new territory will be disappointed.

Here's hoping Absurda yields better material with King Shot, if financing allows.


  1. [SPOILER Warning] [Posting a Response in Two Posts]

    I’m sorry you didn’t like the film, but I’m especially saddened that you don’t seem able to connect with Herzog anymore. You raise some valid points here, and I’ll try to offer some of my own insights, but your visceral reaction to Herzog’s films since ENCOUNTERS seems personal, as if he’s just wasting your time, and I can’t agree there. I don’t see self-parody as much as repetitiveness, and it may be that Herzog simply has nothing new to say to you. I can empathize with that idea—we know his themes at this point—but Herzog’s raging “antinature” existentialism still connects with me, partly because, well, I see the concept and its exploration as inescapably cathartic. I’m thinking particularly of the “mountains staring at me” moment late in the film, when Shannon’s character, who has been striving for reconciliation with the world, himself, and his family, gives into his paranoia, stares into a void, and has no answers. Life’s ostensible meaninglessness deserves our scorn not our acceptance, as Shannon’s character illustrated during his “audience performance.” In this way, and also by placing us as witnesses and participants in the lead’s decline, the film becomes metacinematic.

    The house itself, its calming pink stucco and manicured cactus garden, is Lynch’s BLUE VELVET lawn, disguising the ugliness within. Also particularly moving to me was Shannon’s Steadicam shuffling through a central Asian square of men with hard faces and rough skin. Why? I couldn’t tell you exactly, but it was. Herzog’s (or was it Lynch’s?—because it felt Lynchian) balancing of police interrogation alongside the spiritual investigation of the murderer’s motivations was a highlight for me as well. To my mind the other characters—Dafoe and Pena’s detectives, Sevigny’s girlfriend, Kier’s director, Dourif’s crazy uncle—though admittedly cheaply developed, represented the Greek chorus explicating the tragedy. It’s true that a lot of these characters seem fixed, pitched at a certain level, but those are Greek characters for you.

  2. I take your point about Zabriskie’s performances. I just finished watching her chew up the screen on BIG LOVE, in which her character—abused by tyrant of a husband and a remorseless patriarchy—is a bundle of neuroses, but still manages to retain a sense of decency and love for her family. You are right that she’s playing a character she has always played, but I don’t think you’re giving the “undramatized” breadth of her character justice. There are suggestions, through the Greek tragedy and her treatment of her son and his girlfriend, that speak of a damaged history, and a more damaging relationship with men. The “basketball scene” was lovely, as the character literally, laughably “passed” his life and energy on to someone more innocent. That is somewhat cutesy, but I felt the character’s sadness and desire to choose life through the image. The ostrich eating Kier’s glasses was indeed hilarious, as was the subsequent wrestling to get them back. I felt the hand of Lynch there. Especially with Lynch, where there is absurdity there is often insanity, and consequently, tragedy. You can count me among the “crowd” that laughed at the absurdity of the flamingoes and ostriches, and I don’t see how that audience is “growing” at all. I also find it hilarious that Herzog and Lynch developed this wild tale from a true story.

    Who else makes films as nutty as this? I don’t think it’s a masterpiece, and I agree that the two styles don’t always gel, but the film works on several levels in spite of that. I see the evolution of Shannon’s character over the course of the film. I haven’t seen ENCOUNTERS or BAD LIEUTENANT so I can’t trace the development you’re suggesting here, and now your viewing of those films, damn it, has irrevocably colored my own. (BAD L. is playing at the Red Vic next weekend, and I’ll be able to test that theory soon.) Herzog’s predictability is what seems to irk you the most, and I can see your point that his madness and passion have hardened into conventionality somewhat. But there’s still intelligence and inquisitiveness. I can’t see giving up on him yet.

  3. Some compelling commentary, and I thank you for weighing in at such length. (And I'm amused that we're equally split on THE BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS.) Your analysis of the Greek motifs seems particularly spot on, and I'm more than willing to concede that my mood was simply not in sync with the film's that day. And yet enough of my reservations hold that I hesitate to see the film again. Though I also hesitate to call it a year's worst. Moving on...