Runtime: 123 minutes
Director: Florian Zeller
Writers: Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton (Based on Le Fils by Florian Zeller)
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern, Vanessa Kirby, Zen McGrath
By Calum Cooper
Florian Zeller’s “The Son” (2022) is a lazy, melodramatic dumpster fire. Its appalling presentation hurts all the more as Zeller’s previous film, “The Father” (2020), was incredible. It was a visually clever, and emotionally devastating, drama with a wealth of empathy at its core. None of those strengths are present in this followup. The only thing “The Son” has in abundance is how often its manipulative script goes in circles.
Peter (Hugh Jackman) is a New York businessman who has recently had a child with his new partner Beth (Vanessa Kirby). He gets a visit from his ex-wife, Kate (Laura Dern), who informs him that their 17-year-old son Nicolas (Zen McGrath) has been skipping school for the last three months. Realising that Nicolas is suffering from a hard spell of depression, Peter takes him in, in spite of his own turbulent circumstances. But Peter’s own anxieties threaten to worsen rather than ease Nicolas’s mental health struggles.
Anxiety, depression, and mental health concerns are topics that we as a collective society have only just started to better understand. Contemporary cinema has naturally started addressing such issues as well, turning in some exemplary works such as “Eighth Grade” (2018) or “The Edge of Seventeen” (2016). Where those films handle these subjects with measured sensitivity, “The Son” chooses to use them as a sob gleaner from the easily lachrymose. The manufactured nature of its thematic structure is as shockingly obvious as it is drably realised.
“The Son” is a straw-man of a title, for its titular son is not a character. He’s a plot device for others to project the saccharine messages onto. The script has no interest in Nicolas outside of how his sadness affects those around him. If it cared to spend even a bit time in his shoes it might’ve gone some way to exploring why his mental anguish is as bad as it is. His many vocal grievances about life and waved off observations about his parents’ divorce are unconvincing. Depression and anxiety often come inward; from places of self-loathing or low self-esteem. All of Nicolas’s worries are external, not to mention one dimensional in portrayal. Thus they come off more like adolescent apathy than complex trauma or confusion.
Much of the film is spent in dull hallways with the characters conversing intensely, often on subjects already addressed. Nicolas talks about how hard or sad life is, without any considerate reference to his experiences outside of underdeveloped implications. Peter tries to connect with him, only for his own lack of perspective to close off any potential understanding. Two hours of supposedly heart-wrenching discussion, and not once does it offer any compelling insights into mental turmoil outside of superficial soundbites. Not once do any of these characters feel like anything other than vehicles for the plot.
This monotonous narrative roundabout would be more tolerable if the acting was better. Hugh Jackman brings vulnerability beneath a façade of strength to his character, but his otherwise great performance is undercut by the on-the-nose dialogue and emotionally distant direction. Kirby and Dern are left to fend for themselves, as the film does little if anything for their roles. Many of their biggest moments, where you would expect the most emotional beats to exist, occur off-screen. This includes an argument between Peter and Beth, after a harrowing low point in Nicolas’s depression, which is relegated to little more than an afterthought. McGrath’s non-entity of a role robs him of anything sufficient to work with. Yet his histrionic delivery, especially opposite his co-stars, make his efforts hard to swallow, even with the benefit of the doubt.
““The Son” is an awful movie. One of the year’s worst. Rarely has a film missed the mark of its thematic or filmmaking potential so spectacularly.”
Where “The Father” shined brightest, outside of Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar-winning performance, was in its visual presentation. “The Son” boasts no such quality. Rather the mundane opulence of Peter’s flat serves mostly as background fodder to the infuriatingly repetitive conversations. The editing suffers just as much, with its reliance on typical shot reverse shot structures turning the product into something more akin to a soap opera than an impactful drama. Yet they seem like minor flesh wounds compared to the direction. Where Zeller was involved and compassionate in “The Father” he seems bored and disconnected with “The Son”. As the narrative is more concerned with Peter’s plight than Nicolas’s, the facial close ups and mawkish music feel lifted right out of the tearjerker playbook. There is a disingenuous quality to the way the film is crafted that makes the entire ordeal feel manipulative rather than nuanced.
Perhaps somewhere, really deep down, the film has something to say regarding how easily parents can fall into the toxic habits of their predecessors. It’s a captivating, under-explored part of generational trauma. Sadly, the film has no interest in exploring such ideas outside of thinly veiled references, and contrived woe-is-me moments. It instead wants to generate tears through its dangerously one-note portrayal of mental health. With no serious consideration towards the intricacy or thoughtfulness that comes with depression and how to treat it, it takes what could’ve been powerful material and makes a complete farce from it. It is as achingly predictable as it is frustratingly realised, resulting in a shallow, self-serving geek show; one that only seems to get worse the more one dwells on its half-baked ideas and baffling creative choices.
“The Son” is an awful movie. One of the year’s worst. Rarely has a film missed the mark of its thematic or filmmaking potential so spectacularly. That it’s a follow up to something as sincere and smartly made as “The Father” makes this car crash all the more horrific. As far as silver linings go, the cast and crew are all very talented people who will bounce back from this to make better films. No doubt they’ll recover from the terribleness of “The Son” quicker than I will.