The Son, the latest directorial effort from Oscar winner Florian Zeller (Best Adapted Screenplay: The Father), is a two-hour test of endurance.
Based on Zeller’s 2018 stage play of the same name, The Son clearly aims high: can the writer/director adapt yet another of his theatre scripts into Oscar-worthy cinematic excellence? With a cast composed of stars like Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern, Vanessa Kirby, Anthony Hopkins and newcomer Zen McGrath, one would certainly think it possible.
But it’s obvious early on that The Son will fall short.
A bottle searching for lightning
In the set-up, we meet workaholic Peter Miller (Hugh Jackman), who’s recently married his mistress Beth (Vanessa Kirby) and is raising a newborn son with her. One night, out of the blue, Peter’s ex-wife Kate (Laura Dern) shows up and fretfully reveals that their 17-year-old son Nicholas (Zen McGrath) is depressed and has dropped out of school.
Peter feels that he barely knows Nicholas, but agrees to house him regardless. We come to know that Peter has a terrible relationship with his own father (Anthony Hopkins), so he sees this as a chance to be a good father (the one he never had) to Nicholas.
However, a lot more is going on with Nicholas than what meets the eye – most of which is ignored by both of his well-meaning parents. The seriousness of his mental health issues is brushed off, which leads to devastating consequences. Unfortunately, this important emotional through-line of the film is handled clumsily, with all its predictable crime drama beats telegraphed far too early on.
One thing I noted almost immediately was how disappointing the dialogue in The Son was. You have some real Hollywood heavy-hitters here who have to deliver lines that would feel more at home in a soap opera – which is especially shameful for the consistently great Dern, and Hopkins too.
The titular son Nicholas is a somewhat intriguing character, performed committedly by McGrath, but he is sidelined in an attempt to give us more empathy with the parents, which just doesn’t work. Also, every time Nicholas talks, there is a low droning sound rumbling up under his dialogue (because he’s not sound of mind, don’t you see?!) which becomes hard to take seriously. Sidenote: Hans Zimmer composed the score for this film, which seems like an odd fit from the outset (but explains the droning).
Given the film’s depressing subject matter, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at the appearance of a bit of comic relief in the first act. But when Jackman and Kirby launch into a dance sequence in an attempt to connect with Nicholas, the moment is simply cringey, awkward and devoid of joy. As they boogie, we cut to Nicholas looking forlorn, still clearly cut up about his parents’ divorce – but we already knew that, so what is the point?
The Son is competently shot, and just that. I rarely paid attention to what the camera was doing, which I suppose is fine. The only time I really noticed the work was when they employed predictable slow-zooms into close-ups of the actors – which are meant to communicate the character’s psychological state.
The editing likes to cut between images of Nicholas in mental anguish and the image of a washing machine churning wet laundry around, which is actually a pretty apt metaphor for sitting through this movie.
Even the film’s colour grade is depressing: a blue wash over everything, with all warmth limited to the flashbacks, which somehow serve no real narrative purpose beyond getting the audience to empathise with the self-absorbed Peter.
When it’s all said and done, the film ends on a dream sequence. Yep.
The Son is in Australian cinemas from 9 February 2023.