“Razzle them. Dazzle them. Razzle dazzle them.”

“Sometimes I’m really not sure who’s worse: us cops or the fuckin’ criminals,” says a cop (Willem Dafoe) in Werner Herzog’s new movie – which premiered two days after his Bad Lieutenant. I appreciated that little connection, as well as some casting borrowed from producer David Lynch (Dafoe from Wild at Heart, Brad Dourif from Blue Velvet and the ever-creepy Grace Zabriskie from Inland Empire) and Lynchian attention paid to coffee cups. Unfortunately, I didn’t appreciate much else – not the flat camerawork, the easily-predicted hostage twist, nor the go-nowhere story.

Grace has jello:

My two biggest problems with the movie are identified as assets by Herzog on the DVD extras. He says that feature films should be made cheaply and he achieved this by using a lousy DV camera (probably a Lynch hand-me-down), hence the flat grey photography (fortunately Herzog still knows how to frame a nice shot – it’s not just a visual wasteland out there). Then he talks about interviewing the crazy fellow on whom Michael Shannon’s character was based, noting hundreds of loony little details, then making up his own loony details with Shannon to avoid making a boringly specific true story. But it’s all random details. Shannon is always saying crazy shit with no connection anywhere else, and hey, maybe that’s what fellows who call themselves God and murder their parents actually do, but it comes across as trying too hard to be zany.

Chloe starts to worry about her boyfriend:

Framing device: Michael Shannon (last seen being crazy in Bug) has killed his mother with a sword in front of neighbors Irma P. Hall (Coens’ The Ladykillers) and Loretta Devine (Urban Legend). Detective Dafoe and his overeager partner Michael Peña (Shooter) wait outside because Shannon yells that he has two hostages – but he won’t say who, and the only characters missing are his pet flamingos named Macdougal and Mcnamara, so guess who the hostages turn out to be? Until Shannon comes out, Dafoe kills time by interviewing the neighbors, Shannon’s girlfriend Chloe Sevigny, and friend Udo Kier.

Macdougal and Mcnamara are great flamingo names!

Theater director Udo describes the background of the play he cast Michael Shannon in: “a dynasty of ruthless kings and diabolical queens who eat each other’s flesh and fuck each other’s wives – century after century, generation after generation – and only Orestus can lift that curse, but he has to murder his mother to do it.” This is the part that was based on a true story. He also reminisces about Shannon taking him to uncle Brad Dourif’s ostrich farm (flamingos + ostriches = a good bird movie). Chloe says Mike went to Peru with his buddies a couple years ago and started having premonitions, ditched the raft trip they were all supposed to take and ended up the only survivor. Meanwhile, Shannon in flashback walks around a market in some country or another with a Pi-camera strapped to him and says things like “I hate it that the sun always comes up in the east.”

Michael, Udo, Brad and a sword:

DVD extras tell us the writer used Jules Dassin’s A Dream of Passion for inspiration. I was thinking that “hostages” kinda sounds like “ostriches.”

“Nobody with a good car needs to be justified.”

Huston, in his seventies, still had six more films to make and his fifteenth oscar nomination to earn. This movie was far weirder (and dirty, run-down & location-shot) than anything I thought a respected veteran hollywood studio filmmaker would produce. His might be a career I need to obsessively explore some day! We saw a square-ish 16mm print, which looked fine and dandy to me (I mean, the film looked like it’d been left in the glove box of Hazel’s car for some years, but looked fine ratio-wise), but I see the Criterion DVD will be 1.78:1.

Hazel Motes arrives back home to find his family gone, his childhood home looted and decrepit. Instead of trying to find them, he stalks a street preacher and daughter, then decides to preach his own church, one without Christ. Simpleton Enoch Emery follows Hazel trying to be his friend, eventually supplies a Christ for his church (pygmy mummy robbed from a museum). Hazel spooks the preacher into leaving town and (inadvertently) charms the daughter into shacking up with him. A con man likes Hazel’s game and emulates it by hiring his own preacher. Cars are run into ditches and lakes, much preaching is done, and Hazel refuses to warm to anybody, finally blinding himself to the delight of his landlady who now has someone helpless to take care of… but when she forces his hand, Hazel wanders off and dies on the streets alone. An extreme movie (and book), full of heresy and, supposedly, redemption. Film is a quite literal adaptation of the book, with a few omissions and modifications.

Professional crazy-actor Brad Dourif (crazy doctor in Alien 4, crazy Wormtongue in Lord of the Rings 2, crazy doll in Child’s Play) played Hazel Motes. Tron star Dan Shor was alright as Enoch Emery – I’d pictured him younger and dumber. It’s good (hell, it’s great) to see Harry Dean Stanton as the fake-blind preacher with daughter Amy Wright (who just appeared in Synecdoche New York). William Hickey (Toulon in the original Puppetmaster!) was the fake preacher hired by con artist Hoover Shoates (well played by Ned Beatty of Nashville). Mary Nell Santacroce (Atlanta native who appeared in another fake-preacher movie, an ill-advised remake of Night of the Hunter) is the landlady who takes over the last few scenes after Hazel blinds himself. And the fictional city of Taulkinham is ably played by Macon, Georgia.

Adapted and produced by the Fitzgerald family (friends of the author). Appalling music by Alex North starts out with bloopy keyboards and wheezing horns then cranks into comic-book twangy versions of recognizable standards. Sounds an awful lot like what someone from Chester Pennsylvania would image people in Macon listen to. Steve agrees the movie would be a masterpiece if you could cut that music out. Let’s hope Criterion has found a way.

Canby of the Times loved it, “lyrically mad and absolutely compelling even when we don’t fully comprehend it.”