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Content Warning: This review discusses teen suicide. It also reveals key plot points of a terrible film.
It’s not uncommon for a promising young filmmaker to suffer a sophomore slump, but writer-director Florian Zeller has suffered a sophomore nosedive. A sophomore chasm. The Grand Canyon of sophomore efforts. His debut film, The Father, netted Oscars in 2020 for its screenplay and astounding lead performance by Anthony Hopkins as a man suffering from dementia. The Son is not the sequel its title implies, nor is it the second film in a trilogy that concludes with The Holy Ghost. It would be silly to make a sequel to a serious drama about dementia, but, I promise you, it could be no more mindless than The Son.
A film of cardboard cutouts masquerading as three-dimensional human beings, The Son opens on Peter (Hugh Jackman), a successful businessman of some sort who works in a big office building in Manhattan. He has a beautiful wife, Beth (Vanessa Kirby), and an infant child (anonymous baby, giving the film’s best performance). He also has an ex-wife, Kate (Laura Dern), with whom he shares a 17-year-old son, Nicholas (Zen McGrath). Nicholas has run into some trouble while living with his mom, skipping school and such, and when you ask him why, he just looks at you with wet eyes and says something like, “It’s all too hard” or “Life is weighing me down.” Everyone decides it’s a good idea for Nicholas to move in with his workaholic father and a stepmom he resents for breaking up his family.
Those with even a cursory understanding of its subject can guess where things are headed when we learn Nicholas has begun self-harming, when he starts cutting classes again and lying to his father, when we conveniently learn of the presence of a gun in the house, and when Peter gives no thought to removing said gun even after his son’s admission of having suicidal thoughts. To his credit, Zeller succeeds in putting these events together in a way that produces an emotional response, but unfortunately that response is compulsory revulsion. He leads you by the hand toward its trite and horrifying finale, and he won’t let go no matter how hard you pull.
It’s a film that could only be made by people so distracted by the importance of their mission that they forget to bring the basic supplies: character development, narrative momentum, conflict. The performances are wooden across the board, especially Jackman’s, whose obtuse work suggests he has been playing superhuman for too long and has lost touch with actual humanity. In his defense, the script gives him little to work with—a series of cliches posing as words real people would say. Every scene is lit like a funeral. The mise-en-scene is gray and airless. The apartment where much of the film takes place is one of those warehouse lofts with plenty of exposed brick, a handy metaphor for the film’s failures.
Still, what’s most galling about The Son is its lack of empathy, a real problem for a film centered on such weighty, sensitive topics. Peter shows a clear concern for his son, and offers him several stern lectures about how the kid needs to pull himself together and put in the work and straighten up and fly right—at least Peter acknowledges these are the same cliches his neglectful father (Hopkins) unloaded on him as a boy—but he refuses to learn anything about the issues actually afflicting his son. He doesn’t read up on depression or talk to a professional. When Nicholas can’t put his pain into words, Peter tries no other approach. It’s not just that he is aloof and incurious; the film is. It wrongly suggests he is doing all he can, and that he is simply too limited by the scars of his own childhood to be the parent Nicholas needs.
Somewhere in there is a point worth making, but to get there Zeller must engage in the most shameless manipulation you can imagine. Peter is the titular son, not Nicholas. This is supposedly his story, which makes Nicholas not a character worthy of dignity and respect but only a vessel to explore his father’s pain, which by the end is demonstrated to be clearly less severe than his son’s. It’s a massive miscalculation, and while it’s tempting to call The Son exploitative of serious issues like mental health, involuntary commitment, and teen suicide, that would imply we got anything out of it.
The Son opens in theaters everywhere on Jan. 20.