top of page
  • Writer's pictureJames McCleary

The Son // Film Review

Florian Zeller’s The Father was more or less a magic trick.

Back in 2020, the film received a lot of attention for its use of seamless, uncut transitions through time and space to disorient viewers, anchored of course by Sir Anthony Hopkins as a man suffering from dementia. The result was widespread acclaim, an Oscar for Hopkins and a lot of keen eyes on Zeller, eager to see what he does next. Then, once it was announced that he would be adapting his spiritual sequel play The Son for the screen, all bets were off. The master magician was about to break the rules yet again, and maybe win a trophy of his own this time.

Which is precisely why it is so surprising to report that The Son is a largely drab and ordinary drama. Set mostly, but not exclusively, in a New York apartment shared by married couple Peter (Hugh Jackman) and Beth (Vanessa Kirby), along with their newborn infant Theo, the first hour and a half of this film take next to no risks, playing out conventional kitchen sink dramatic beats as if they were a checklist. And then the final thirty minutes arrive, wielding a twist so plainly exploitative that it leaves you longing for a return to the mundane.

The premise sees Peter’s son Nicholas (Zen McGrath) from a previous marriage to Kate (Laura Dern), move into his apartment after experiencing some problems at school. Nicholas is a troubled teenager, known to skip school just to aimlessly walk the streets, and often talks about feeling different to everyone else, like he doesn’t quite fit. Most recently, alarm bells have been rung after both parents have started to discover scars on the boy’s wrists.

Peter is a curious protagonist; as a workaholic with a practical solution to everything, he cannot comprehend why anyone would want to be this way. Why can’t Nicholas make friends, date girls and go to parties like everyone else? He seems oblivious to the fact that the pressure is precisely the problem, just as he is oblivious to the strain that Nicholas is having on his relationship with Beth and his neglected second son, Theo. In that sense, he's incredibly difficult to like; if anything, his brand of fatherhood is a touch too close to the archetypical distant father that we all know and hate. But he does grow on us, particularly once Zeller starts to contrast him with his own father, played by Hopkins in an extended cameo.

That’s more or less the complete picture of The Son, a two-hour drama stuffed full of perfunctory scenes which only occasionally rise above the level of a Hallmark movie (lines of dialogue like “are you in pain” are regularly worked into casual conversation). The camera is still and stuck mostly in establishing wides, totally confident that the script and performances can sustain this story on their own. They can’t, despite the best efforts of Jackman and McGrath in particular. A visual style more akin to The Father, where the passage of time becomes a feature of Peter’s strained, deteriorating relationship with his firstborn child could have done wonders here, but instead what we get rarely rises above the quality of a TV movie.

That is, until those aforementioned last thirty minutes, wherein the film reorients itself with a laser focus on one tragic plot point. It turns out that the bulk of The Son is simply table-setting for a particular sequence that cannot be spoiled, but on paper reads as the sort of substantial, taboo subject that films like these should be talking about. In reality, it feels like just another trick. The ‘twist’ is played for gasps, like a mic drop, after which we are robbed of any aftermath, as the film jump cuts away, taking us months into the future. This gasp and awe routine is not the sort of magic the world might have had in mind from Zeller following The Father, but perhaps it was to be expected.

There is no opening for a discussion here, simply a cruel, Oscar-scented finale sure to get people talking (the film saw a ten-minute, bleary-eyed standing ovation at its premiere, which it must be noted did have the cast and crew in attendance). I won’t get into more detail here for fear of giving away the film’s few secrets, but needless to say The Son is not the conversation about teenage mental health that it believes itself to be. It is tragedy for the sake of tragedy, and being honest about how these things tend to work, it’s probably going to win a whole lot of awards for doing less than the bare minimum.

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival 2022.


bottom of page