There is a murder. A son has killed his mother. He has taken two hostages inside the family house and is holding them at gunpoint. Nobody knows who they are. Outside the police are gathered. They negotiate with him. That is the setup of the most recent Werner Herzog film. All of this is told to you in the first ten minutes of the film and from there on in, assisted by the protagonist's girlfriend and his friend, we observe the police detective in charge of the case being taken through the protagonist's psyche as he wound himself up to the murder. Herzog's film has his own touches- flamingos, ostriches and dwarfs on Shetland ponies chased by mutant giant chickens- but the storyline is not complicated, though it is suspenseful. At the centre of it is the murderer Brad and his psychology.
So what are we told about Brad? He went to Peru, came back and was according to his girlfriend never the same again. He was out cayacking with his friends and they came down a river and everyone died, save for Brad who inspired for some reason decided that he would not join them. His sense of that saving animates him throughout the rest of the film. Whatever God saved him, that God is what enthuses his every action: that voice in his head, the God of the box of Puritan Oats, instructs him in how to live and what to do. This peculiar notion is central to the film: we cannot say it definitely caused his mother's death, we can say it was this mindset that enthuses everything he does. Ultimately the instruction for his mother's death was received from this voice. We see him act bizarrely even scarily, he is unwilling to admit to any constraints imposed by society. He cannot see that the fact that a house is not for sale and that he has no money precludes him buying it. He cannot see that he sounds odd and strange, he has his belief and that belief is a truth that ultimately means more to him than anything else in the world. Wondrously Herzog manages to draw on both the sense of religion as the ultimate social impulse (what could be more social than another presence inside your brain) and also the ultimate lonely one.
Two things fit into this psychological perception. The first out of which the murder arrives is his relationship with his mother. She is overbearing and strange- a Lynchian confection (she reminded me instantly of the Eastern European woman from Inland Empire)- she is protective and irritating. She forcefeeds her son jelly, turns up without knocking inside his room whilst he is in there with his girlfriend and basically treats this thirty year old as though he were a kid. The second is that Brad, during this period, is an actor. His friend is his director. The play that he acts in is famous: its the Oresteia. This series of plays chronicles the return of Agamemnon from Troy to Mycenae. At his return, the Great King was murdered by his wife and her lover. His death is avenged by his son- Orestes- who murders his own mother and then is pursued by the furies to Athens where the case is judged by the Athenian citizens and Athena herself. The point of the Oresteia in this film is to do two things- to give Brad a text but also to suggest that violence lies behind somewhere in the shadows. The family of Orestes were known for their brutality: the House of Atreus included Tantalus who fed his own son to the Gods, Pelops who slew his father in law, Atreus who boiled his nephew and then Agamemnon. Violence lies at the heart of any comparison of a family to that of Atreus- what we wonder happened to Brad's father?
The Oresteia though is more than a parallel. It and his mother's behaviour and whatever happened prior to the film are texts which Brad then uses. He believes in these texts as surely as a fundamentalist believes in the Quran or the Bible. He takes these texts and asks them what do you tell me to do. The high rhetoric of the Greek play, the low ribaldry of his situation, the dark musing of his mind come together to a point of certainty and clarity. A point we might say of insanity. His insanity is of a peculiar kind. He sees the world in a particular way and fits his experiences, scarily, into that framework. The point about this is that it is mad but no more mad than anyone who believes in a truth which leads them to see the world askew. It is evil because of its consequences- murder- but also because of the disregard for others that Brad manifests. Brad does not check his religion with sympathy or empathy, for him God is God, truth is truth and that is all Brad wants to know. Brad's charisma draws others to him: it is why I suspect his girlfriend stays with him. More confused humans come towards his certainty. The sophisticated director sees its aesthetic possibilities but not its profound immorality, like Foucault before Khomeini, he sees that the structure is profound but not that it is murderous.
Always though in the film we come back to Brad, the murderer. He shows us that the world is infinitely plastic. That it can be shaped and deformed by a thousand new attitudes and stories. Everything we know about Brad we are told about him by unreliable narrators. Quite possibly he has no rational account of what he does, but what he does proceeds from an emotional take on the world- a take which is informed by Greek tragedy and his own emasculation. More importantly though its a take on the world which is born out of his sense of having been saved all those years ago, using that as a foundation, incorporating bits of mysticism and religious text, not to mention the text of the Oresteia and his own situation, he commits matricide. The film is less a comment on the unknown murder than on the psyche that preceded it. If Herzog dances along the line in film between sanity and insanity, then its to inform us about our own natures. We too can shape the world in wonderful and terrible ways that have nothing to do with reality, but the consequences can be dire.