The Son: Review
The Son Synopsis: Peter (Hugh Jackman), a successful lawyer with a new wife (Vanessa Kirby) and infant, agrees to care for his teenage son Nicholas (Zen McGrath) from a previous marriage after his ex-wife (Laura Dern) becomes concerned about the boy’s wayward behavior.
A successful businessman with surging career and family prospects comes face-to-face with the mental hardships facing his son Nicholas from a prior marriage in The Son.
For readers disconnected from the film festival circuit, The Son entered the 2022 award season as one of the year’s most promising projects. Writer/director Florian Zeller earned rave reviews and several awards for his 2020 directorial debut, The Father. The film successfully adapted one of Zeller’s celebrated stageplays with technical aplomb, showcasing an affecting depiction of an older man gradually succumbing to dementia.
The Son finds Zeller trying to rekindle the magic of The Father with another cinematic iteration based on his stage work (The Father, The Son, and The Mother are a trio of interconnected pieces that loosely exist within the same universe). This time, Zeller concocts a transfixing trainwreck that swings and misses severely on unpacking nuanced human dilemmas.
How can two similar works showcase such a varied spectrum of results? Where The Father displayed tact and finite focus in its challenging pursuits, The Son never seems to have a pulse on what it vies to achieve.
The potential is certainly there on paper. The Son fearlessly pursues timely ruminations on the lingering baggage of generational sins, the often impenetrable wall of understanding between parent and child, and society’s overarching misunderstanding of complex mental conditions.
There are fragments where the ideas showcase a flicker of promise, but they are mostly suffocated under Zeller’s simplistic and overbearing approach to his subject matter.
Zeller’s work behind the camera is particularly self-indulgent. While The Father occasionally elevated its stagey roots through intelligent filmmaking choices, The Son dials up its stylistic imprint to an obnoxious degree. Meandering tracking shots and the inclusion of Hanz Zimmer’s bombastic score morph seemingly subdued moments into a soap opera drenched in maudlin sentiments. The showiness of Zeller’s techniques prevents most moments from striking a genuine chord.
Surprisingly enough, The Son’s most glaring weakness lies in its misguided screenplay. For all the concepts Zeller bats around, the acclaimed playwright rarely understands the intimate dynamics on display.
The film’s ill-advised treatment of mental illness becomes especially appalling. Despite being the titular character, Nicholas and his ongoing mental health struggles rarely receive much time to breathe onscreen. Nicholas is instead treated as a hapless victim of an unexplainable phenomenon – a choice that exchanges meaningful insight into mental illness for tasteless theatrics utilized to extract unearned emotional reactions from viewers. It becomes incredibly disheartening to watch real-world plights turn into cheap gimmicks, including a final act that sinks down The Room-level territory in its reckless attempt to extract an empathetic punch. I’ve seen many blame young actor Zen McGrath for the character’s failures onscreen, although it seems clear to me that Nicholas is failed most by Zeller’s lack of wisdom.
The Son isn’t an outright disaster. Star Hugh Jackman bears his soul as a distraught father discovering inadequacies within the picturesque life he built, while Laura Dern and Vanessa Kirby imbue dramatic gravity into their roles as Peter’s ex and current wife. Unfortunately, none of the performers’ spirited efforts can overcome a deeply-insincere film.
I can’t speak for what Zeller achieved on the stage with his illustrious play, but The Son completely disconnects with its combustible big-screen adaptation. I still remain interested to see where the playwright goes from here after experiencing a roller coaster of success and failure with his first two cinematic offerings.
The Son opens in theaters nationwide on January 20th.