Review: The Son

Though I thought the movie was better than others did, I agree that Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar-winning performance as the titular character in Florian Zeller’s The Father lifted it higher than it probably deserved. Hopkins also appears briefly in Zeller’s new movie, The Son, as the grandfather, a domineering monster who is the farthest thing from the sensitive, dementia-addled protagonist of Zeller’s debut feature. In a sense, Hopkins’ participation reminds us that the French playwright is generally held in high esteem for interrogating the foibles of the upper middle class nuclear family, and like The Father his new movie transplants his original play from a French milieu to an Anglophone one (with the help of Christopher Hampton). The Son, however, takes place in New York and centers not on Nicholas (Zen McGrath), the son in question, but rather on his father, Peter (Hugh Jackman), a successful corporate lawyer who is about to enter Washington politics big time.

Peter is the kind of hotshot whom people often describe as having too much on their plate, and it’s implied this self-imposed busyness has damaged Nicholas without Peter really knowing it, because he hasn’t been around the teenager that much since he divorced his mother, Kate (Laura Dern). Peter now has a much younger wife, Beth (Vanessa Kirby), and a new baby, so when Kate calls him up saying that Nicholas has been a chronic truant, he reacts more put-out than concerned. Still, he knows what’s expected of him and expresses a gratuitous sense of guilt-cum-responsibility by promising to talk to the boy and straighten everything out. Nicholas, who the audience has already been primed to understand suffers from clinical depression, demands that Peter and Beth take him in, not so much out of resentment toward Kate, but out of a desperate need for change that he thinks his father might provide. What Peter soon comes to learn, however, is that this desperation is mainly motivated by Nicholas’s feeling of being abandoned.

Unlike with The Father, Zeller develops The Son in a conventionally straight line, and as Peter comes to understand the depth of Nicholas’s emotional problems he is forced to improvise in ways that don’t suit his temperament. The boy’s instability only worsens, and by the time he ends up in the hospital and a psychiatrist is seriously recommending he be institutionalized, Peter has run the gauntlet of paternal readjustment gimmicks, including an attempt at tough love that fails disastrously. Though the script is coherent and sensitive and Jackman’s performance insightful enough to convey Peter’s drawbacks as a parent without making him into the horror show his own father (Hopkins) so obviously was, The Son is a pure downer without anything edifying to say about mental illness. Regardless of whether it’s due to nurture or nature, the movie implies that kids like Nicholas are doomed from the start. 

Opens March 17 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

The Son home page in Japanese

photo (c) The Son Films Limited and Channel Four Television Corporation 2022

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