The Son feature film review | Film Reviews | Salt Lake City Weekly

The Son feature film review 

Follow-up from the director of The Father rings hollow and superficial.

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In 2020, writer-director Florian Zeller's harrowing film The Father was released. A work of what was essentially psychological horror where the source of fear came from within the inside of one's own mind, it featured a magnificent performance from Anthony Hopkins as a man living with dementia. It approached the grim story unflinchingly, capturing a slice of life portrait of what happens when all you hold dear is beginning to slip away forever. All of the ways it empathetically brought into being the experience of not being able to trust your own perception was enhanced by a grace that was felt in every facet of the Award-winning performance by Hopkins.

Zeller's follow-up that is also a prequel of sorts, The Son, will not be receiving any such recognition. Utterly lacking in any such grace, it is a significant step down that feels as though it was made by an entirely different filmmaker. Obviously, this isn't the barometer for what makes art valuable, but it is bizarre to look back on this film with the knowledge that it was once considered to be a potential contender for end-of-year awards.

Based on Zeller's 2018 stage play of the same name, it follows a fractured family facing a crisis that none of them are equipped to handle. Patriarch Peter (Hugh Jackman) is living with his new partner Beth (Vanessa Kirby) and their newborn son. Peter's troubled teenage son Nicholas (Zen McGrath) is living with his previous wife, Kate (Laura Dern), though now wants to come stay with Peter, as he is having persistent struggles and is crying out for help. Peter agrees to this in the hopes that he can offer stability and support, only to rather quickly find himself out of his depth.

Most of The Son takes place in a series of stilted and plainly-shot conversations that are built around the characters speaking past each other without truly listening. Peter, in particular, believes that he must be firm with Nicholas, who has been skipping school. It is a type of "tough love" that is self-servingly toxic and destructive; the overbearing tragedy then comes from how this seems to be the sole way Peter knows how to communicate. After all, this was how he was raised by his own dad, played by Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins even makes a scene-stealing appearance that establishes how familial trauma has been passed down across generations.

The longer the film goes on, the more we hear from Nicholas about how he has become lost in life and fearful about his future. The looming potential for pain begins bearing down on the story with all the subtlety of a freight train.

It must be established that any story grappling with domestic strife and, as we come to realize, the devastating agony of depression, is certainly going to be messy. We all like to believe that we would be able to be there for our loved ones to face their problems head-on together, but life does not always work that way. People are flawed and any excavation of this means laying this issue bare. What becomes the film's downfall is how the story itself is so messy, melodramatic and blunt in its construction that it renders most everything hollow. While possibly well-intentioned, as the film struggles to reach its final act, it is made unredeemable in how frustrating and manipulative it all is.

At its core, The Son relies on a fraught series of deceptions about Nicholas that are so transparent and tactless that they leave a sour taste in the mouth. We don't feel like we come to know him beyond the broad strokes, a choice that shifts from representing the disconnection between him and his parents to being shallow in all the wrong ways. For all the attempts the cast make to inject the story with life, it never finds anything even close to emotional resonance.

Where The Father was compassionate just as it was crushing, The Son is dispassionate and dreary without ever scratching beneath the surface. This story is a tragically timeless one, but the way it is told here fails to do it justice. Its greatest tragedy is that it loses sight of any humanity, merely going through the motions and nothing more.

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Chase Hutchinson

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