Two detectives, Haverhurst (Willem Dafoe) and Vargas (Michael Peña), are driving around San Diego as Haverhurst, the older, regales his partner with tales of being pulled over by a hick cop who was sent reeling when he realised that he was about to arrest a homicide investigator, and muses that sometimes he does not know who is worse, the police or the criminals. Then they get a message over the radio that a murder has been committed, and they should head over to the address right away: when they arrive, Haverhurst is spoken to in the small crowd by a strange man, and should have taken more notice of him...
That's because the strange man is the chief suspect, one Brad McCullum (Michael Shannon), and he has just killed his own mother with a sword. Soon he has holed up in his home across the street with a shotgun, and a siege takes place as he claims to have two hostages, as all the while Haverhurst tries to think up ways to talk the obviously disturbed man down. If this sounds like something that could only have been invented in the mind of its director Werner Herzog, then it was actually based, as it says at the beginning, on a true story that Herzog's co-scriptwriter Herbert Golder had been researching for years.
To the extent that he had befriended the man who had been the killer, who after a spell in high security psychiatric hospitals was free and living in obscurity, so was naturally flattered that someone was taking an interest in his story. Herzog teamed up with another cult auteur in David Lynch to bring this story to the screen, but with these two talents the real life events took in a far less documentary cast, with the murderer character now having had some kind of revelation on a trip to Peru with a group of friends, all of whom drowned except him, which in a Herzog fashion simply looked to be another excuse to visit South America again.
Indeed, the director's usual obsessions did not quite fit as well as the might have done when married to this tale of true tragedy, and the incredibly slow pace was enough to turn a lot of viewers off, with even the customary humour familiar from this filmmaker somewhat toned down as yes, there were some very strange things going on here, but it was as if out of respect to the real people, or perhaps that Herzog was a little spooked by his material, there was nothing funny in a ridiculous manner about much of this. After a while, the experience of a drawn out siege began to feel less tense, more like a slog through the waiting out of a situation that was not as eccentric as it seemed.
With conversations between Haverhurst and Brad's fiancée (Chloë Sevigny) and the director (Udo Kier) who fired him from the play he was staging, we begin to build up a profile of the killer. It's the all too common plot of suffocating love of a mother for her child messing up that child as a result, with Brad's parent (Grace Zabriskie) clinging onto him after her husband died when the boy was two years old, and after he survived his Peruvian excursion and got a bit too lost in his role as a matricidal character in the play, events were headed towards an inevitable in hindsight clash. Along the way we get flashbacks to Brad Dourif's ostrich farm and the like, but this was that occasional Herzog which amounted to less than the sum of its parts, with only a curious anti-female thread running through its mood as if Brad has been driven to his crimes by overbearing women. Fans will be diverted, but this was a lesser work. Near-constant music by Ernst Reijseger.
Eccentric German writer/director known equally for his brilliant visionary style and tortuous filming techniques. After several years struggling financially to launch himself as a filmmaker, Herzog began his career with the wartime drama Lebenszeichen and surreal comedy Even Dwarfs Started Small. But it was the stunning 1972 jungle adventure Aguirre, Wrath of God that brought him international acclaim and began his tempestuous working relationship with Klaus Kinski. The 1975 period fable Heart of Glass featured an almost entirely hypnotised cast, while other Herzog classics from this era include Stroszek, the gothic horror Nosferatu the Vampyre and the spectacular, notoriously expensive epic Fitzcarraldo.