The Son: Father, Son, House of Zeller
The news of Vanessa Kirby joining Florian Zeller’s latest, The Son, was actually one of the first news pieces I ever wrote while covering movies. Combine that with the general liking I took to The Father (despite how close to home it hit), Zeller’s previous film and the first entry in his cinematic adaptations of his stage plays, and I was excited for The Son. Plus, this seemed like Hugh Jackman‘s last real “Oscar” role before he sells his soul back to the MCU machine.
The Son follows a father, who takes in his son a couple of years after his divorce from his ex-wife. Peter (Jackman) is now living a new life with a new partner (played by Kirby) and a new son yet he answers the bell when his eldest son, Nicholas (Zen McGrath), comes pleading for help while desperate for an escape from his mother, Kate (Laura Dern).
But Nicholas is not in a great place mentally. You see, he’s been skipping school for over a month when the film begins. His aggression towards his mother has reached a new boiling point and he’s left with no choice — to him, anyway — but to move in with his father.
You may notice early on that despite being a prequel of sorts to The Father, the film has already run laps around the scope of The Father within three scenes. Is that a good thing? Eh. You see, the beauty of The Father, a film all about dementia and even giving climbs into that condition, is that the (mostly) one location shoot worked in its favor. It made the film feel like the walls were closing in as Anthony Hopkins’ character feels the walls closing in and it also was clear how The Father was an adaptation of a stage play.
Speaking of walls closing in, Nicholas feels very similarly. Oftentimes, he has breakdowns but isn’t able to explain these meltdowns to his parents. If you ask him what happened during his day, you’re likely receiving a cold “nothing” in response. McGrath certainly tries his best in the film, but he feels unnatural at times. Perhaps the writing failed him more than anything, but what’s seen on screen is hard to sympathize with because of the lack of distinction. It’s said that he’s dealing with depression on a number of occasions, but it also appears he’s dealing with bipolar symptoms as well. While you may think to yourself that this could’ve been an artistic choice, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this was simply mishandled.
And it’s hard to tell how much blame goes on the actors’ lap and the writing’s. On one hand, Zeller and Christopher Hampton wrote a brilliant script for The Father, yet very little about The Son would suggest that. It surely doesn’t help McGrath’s robotic nature in scenes with passion stand out when acting across world-class actors such as Jackman and Kirby.
The most puzzling choice, however, was the inclusion of Hopkins. It’s my understanding that The Son is a prequel to The Father. While I haven’t seen The Father since early 2021, I do remember him living in Europe. Why is he in Washington D.C.? I’m sure there’s a good reason for it, but Hopkins is delegated to such a diminished role that it begs the question of whether or not he was really necessary (even if he’s good in that one scene) — especially considering that he’s a glorified cameo that feels obligatory, more than anything, much like Owen Wilson being in a Wes Anderson movie. It’s also entirely possible that it was a pandemic-related limitation given Hopkins’ age. The fact that he sits at the head of the table while Jackman sits a few seats down made this theory pop into my head. Ultimately, the world may never know…
Maybe some of this would be forgivable if Titane hadn’t done Peter’s character arc better. Peter is so desperate to believe that his son is turning a new leaf — an understandable feeling — to the point that he’ll excuse anything Nicholas does. That eagerness to believe the lie is also seen in Titane (and to much greater effect). While Jackman is fine as Peter, he’s no Vincent Lindon, and his inability to see his wife’s rationale and reason for concern is so hard to watch. Maybe if I were a parent, my perspective would be different. The love for your child is completely understandable, but being unwilling to take the appropriate steps to help your child is a different story. We also don’t get that much background on Peter and Kate’s relationship outside of the fact that Peter left Kate for Beth (Kirby).
There are good intentions by Zeller to try and create a healthy conversation about mental health. Unfortunately, The Son was not a great case for this study. I think it attempts at showing some mental health issues, but so much of it is reduced to yelling variations of “I hate you, Mom!” and slamming doors. I’m sure this was intentional, but the cuts to the washer machine just felt like such an on-the-nose way of saying that Nicholas and his struggles can be diagnosed as rinse, wash and repeat. That phrase also describes much of what happens during the tedious runtime of The Son.
The Son’s also building up to a crescendo that you, the viewer, know is inevitable. Remember how you were just waiting for the jig to be up in Parasite and for the rich family to realize they’re being played? Or how in Not Okay you knew Dani’s house of cards was bound to fall? The Son is building toward something so tragic and ultimately, the end result is underwhelming. I think that the setup of this scene and the performances by Jackman and Dern in this particular scene are great, but it’s just like watching a ticking time bomb and I really hate that the film opts for such a bleak ending. You don’t always have to subvert expectations in the wildest way possible by turning the scene on its head, but sometimes just doing the obvious thing is just as ineffective. To make matters worse, a fantastical — as I’ll call it to avoid spoilers — scene follows make me assume that Zeller and Hampton assume we’re dumb and will either be shocked by the final reveal of the scene or affected. I was neither.
Sometimes when you set the bar so high, it’s impossible to clear it. Zeller did this with The Father which felt like a personal film. I can’t speak to Zeller’s experiences and how much of The Son is based on true events — it does have a dedication at the end — but where The Father seemed intimate, The Son feels cold and cynical and ultimately, the message of the film gets lost in all of the mayhem.
The Son will be released in select theaters on November 25 and will expand nationwide on January 20.