Detectives Havenhurst (Willem Dafoe) and Vargas (Michael Pena) arrive at the scene of a recent murder, where an elderly lady has been stabbed with an antique sword. Outside the crime scene, a man drinking coffee says something strange to Havenhurst, and shortly after, the detectives realise this man is Brad Macallam (Michael Shannon), the son of the murdered woman and also the murderer. Brad shacks himself up in his own home with two unseen hostages and a shotgun, so Havenhurst begins to delve into Brad's story, with the help of Brad's fiancé Ingrid (Chloe Sevigny) and his drama teacher Lee Meyers (Udo Kier). What they discover is a man changed by a recent trip to Peru, where he pulled out of a kayak trip at the last minute after hearing the voice of God telling him not to, only for everyone else to be killed.
This is certainly one of Herzog's 'smaller' films, following the almost mainstream and outlandish (but hugely entertaining) Bad Lieutenant earlier the same year. Yet Herzog is no stranger to budget, location and equipment constraints, and has made some of his best films under these conditions, and manages to tell an absorbing, sometime hypnotic tale of a wild man at odds with his surroundings. This is a recurring theme for Herzog - civilised man's struggle against the aggressive, unpredictable forces of nature - and here Brad seems to be isolated from society after witnessing the full force of nature at work. Why exactly does he kill his mother? No questions are truly answered, but the film is more interesting at showing you the factors that may have lead to this horrific act.
For the film to work at all, it must have an actor capable of delivering such complexities of the mind into his performance, and Shannon pulls it off perfectly. Quickly becoming my favourite working actor, Shannon is a towering presence, appearing uncomfortable in his own body, all mad eyes and slurred voice. At times it's almost hard to watch him, terrified at what he may do at any given time. Given that any mystery surrounding the murder is removed by Herzog at the beginning of the film, it's a real achievement that the film managed to be as exciting and absorbing as it is, with Herzog's unpredictable approach mixing flashbacks and faked freeze-frames with some of his familiar quirky topics such as wild animals, scarred terrains, dwarves and a haunting score. A little gem, and as Herzog and Lynch discussed in their successful meeting, "a return of essential film-making" for the director.
Directed by: Werner Herzog
Starring: Michael Shannon, Willem Dafoe, Chloë Sevigny, Udo Kier, Michael Peña, Brad Dourif