Review: 'The Son' an Unworthy Successor to 'The Father'

Saturday January 28, 2023

Hugh Jackman in "The Son"
Hugh Jackman in "The Son"  

There's a scene around the halfway mark of "The Son," the second film by playwright Florian Zeller after 2020's "The Father," meant to provide some levity to the mostly somber mood. Successful businessman Peter (Hugh Jackman) is at home with his wife Beth (Vanessa Kirby) and teenage son Nicholas (Zen McGrath), who's suffering from depression and has just moved in from his mother/Peter's ex-wife's apartment. Beth brings up Peter's bad dancing and throws on Tom Jones' "It's Not Unusual," and everyone dances and smiles. The scene made me realize what exactly I was watching: Two Australian actors and an English actress, directed by a French filmmaker, with a script translated from a French play by a British screenwriter, in a film about an American family.

Don't think that I'm suggesting some sort of nationalist qualifications for what someone can create, though (movies are make-believe, after all). That blend of non-Americans making an American family drama just felt like an easy go-to explanation for the uncanny valley of emotion that is "The Son," a flat-out disaster of a movie compared to Zeller's Oscar-winning debut. The primary focus here is the relationship between Peter and Nicholas, as the former is unequipped to handle his son's mental illness along with his ex (Laura Dern), which he juggles alongside his careerist aspirations and taking care of his newborn son with Beth.

At the very least, Zeller changes things up for his sophomore effort behind the camera, even if he's adapting another of his own plays. "The Father" took on a subjective point of view with Anthony Hopkins' title character, whose worsening dementia made the film displace itself from time while manipulating his surroundings in a clever use of set design. There's no trickery in "The Son," though, just a straightforward tale of a broken family ripped further apart by mental illness. The only problem is that Zeller, now without a bag of tricks, has to rely on filmmaking skills he either lost between movies or never had in the first place.

Performances range from laughably bad to neutral, for which blame can't be placed entirely on the cast, considering the stilted, unnatural dialogue they have to work with. Sometimes it's the big moments, like Nicholas' monologues about his feelings, which have all the passion and emphasis of a high school play. Other times it's the little things, like every character only referring to Nicholas by his full name, which comes across as an error in the translation (the character's name in the French text is Nicolas, which typically doesn't get shortened to Nick). Then there are the moments Zeller likes to underline, such as the mention of a gun stored in Peter's laundry room that prompts intermittent cutaways to shots of the room, or maybe a close-up of the washing machine in an ominous spin cycle. "The Son" is off-putting in its unintentionally forced awkwardness, and yet refreshing in how outright bad all of it is; like it or not, it's an achievement to get the likes of Laura Dern to turn in a performance as awful as the one she gives here.

Zeller and screenwriter Christopher Hampton's inability to write or direct a single human interaction is too much of a hurdle to engage with "The Son's" themes, which have a lot to do with the shortcomings of parenthood, and how cycles of failure and hurt can perpetuate themselves from one generation to another. The film's only good moment comes when Peter visits his father, who's played by Anthony Hopkins in a cameo that has him stealing the whole film. His cruelty and indifference to Peter's situation ("Just get over it," he tells Peter about his still-lingering resentments over how he was raised) provide clarity on Peter's own behavior to his son, and reveal him as the titular character rather than Nicholas. The scene is a glimmer of something interesting, a brief moment where it's possible to see where "The Son" could have been something as resonant as the ideas it wants to explore. Then the scene ends, and it's back to the cringe-inducing central drama around Nicholas that trudges along to its grim, inevitable conclusion.

Maybe "The Son" would have been better if Hopkins made it instead, or just anyone on this planet aside from Zeller.

"The Son" opens in theaters Jan. 20.