By Christian DiMartino
Florian Zeller’s The Father was not only the best movie of 2020, but it’s among my favorites of the decade so far. The film, an upsetting and dizzying, yet moving depiction of dementia, earned Anthony Hopkins an Oscar, as well as Zeller and his co-writer Christopher Hampton for Adapted Screenplay. Zeller returns with The Son, starring Hopkins (briefly), Academy Award nominee Hugh Jackman, Academy Award winner Laura Dern, and Academy Award nominee Vanessa Kirby. This all sounds like a homerun, and surely they thought so too otherwise they wouldn’t have signed on.
Well… they shouldn’t have signed on.
This must have seemed like an important story. Perhaps there is a sensitivity towards this subject matter. Alas, it was not present in the film I witnessed last night. The Son is a shockingly bad movie, one of truly heartbreaking proportions, but not heartbreaking in the way it oh-so intends to be. This is a film with an important subject that doesn’t seem to understand its importance, or its subject. Either this film was written and directed by aliens who tried to take a stab at this whole “depression thing,” or it’s so hellbent on upsetting you that time was not properly taken to earn the heartbreak.
I have of course not seen Zeller’s play of the same name, so I cannot vouch for whether or not this worked on stage. What’s so shocking, pretty much from its opening scenes, is that this does come from the same creative team as The Father. In many ways, I wish I didn’t know that information, because it’s kind of hard to avoid comparing the two. The Father was effective, and it had authentic insight towards its subject. Frankly, I don’t know what the hell Zeller is trying to accomplish with this story. All I know is that it has one of the more obvious, almost condescendingly manipulative screenplays in some time. It not only wants you to feel, but it’s wants to tell you how to feel, and, through its editing, storytelling and music cues, it’s holding your hand every step of the way.
Here’s the thing: I don’t mind being manipulated, as long as it’s effective. The Son is not effective, because we not only know where Zeller is taking us all along, but he doesn’t even really seem to care about his subject. That being, a depressed teenager named Nicholas (newcomer Zen McGrath, whose got kind of a Finn Wittrock/ Timothee Chalamet/ Jack Dylan Glazer thing going on). Perhaps that’s because Zeller is trying to juggle two subjects: Nicholas’ depression, and the ways that the sins of the father are imparted on the son or whatever. Trouble is, he doesn’t go all the way with either one, so the whole thing just feels half-baked, while it’s shoving its emotions down your throat.
Peter (Jackman, doing his best) is happily married to Beth (Kirby), and they have a newborn. Peter’s ex, Kate (Dern) knocks on his door one afternoon expressing her fears for their son Nicholas. He has been skipping school and he seems disconnected from those around him. Nicholas asks Peter if he can stay with him for a while. Beth has indifferent feelings towards Nicholas because he obviously blames her for splitting his parents up. Nonetheless, he stays with them, and his depressed tendencies begin to loom over the apartment.
So, first off, one crucial mistake that The Son makes is that Zeller doesn’t take the time to properly invest us in Nicholas. Which, is kind of a big deal because, well, much of the movie is his. We know that Nicholas is depressed, but for whatever reason, Zeller doesn’t seem interested in providing insight as to why, so we’re not really sure why we care. Which also doesn’t help because if you know the premise of this film, you know where it’s taking us. The film constantly reminds us of where it’s taking us too. Nicholas observes early on that Peter has a shotgun in the laundry room, and what does the movie do? It keeps cutting to a washing machine. Zeller, buddy, we got it. Thanks.
The film seems to have a very 1950s-grasp on the concept of depression. Which, okay. I know people who, to this day, don’t fully know what depression is. The characters within The Son don’t really either, which is why some rather idiotic mistakes are made on their behalves. The trouble though is that Zeller doesn’t really get it either. I say this because all you really get from this is that Nicholas is sad. And that depression is this really painful thing. Did you also know that water is wet?
Not helping things is that the screenplay for this film truly is pretty terrible. Actors that I love and admire are forced to sell the hell out of it, and god bless them. They sort of do, at times, but I never blamed them. It’s all so artificial, obvious, and saccharine. I hate to say this, but it reminded me of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room at times, and not helping things is just the nature for which this story is told. Again though, I don’t blame the cast. Well, not all of them. Alas, one of the key issues with The Son is… well, the son. I have never seen McGrath before, and maybe he’s not to fully be blamed. He’s just bestowed a lot of emotional monologues that he doesn’t quite have the capability of selling. Maybe it’s the performance, or maybe it’s Zeller’s direction. I’m not sure.
I should say, Hopkins hops off the bench at around the halfway mark to play Peter’s dad, and it’s definitely the best scene of the film. We see that Peter’s father is a nasty, vicious old man, and that Peter may be picking up some of his tendencies. But even those tendencies don’t feel earned, because despite like one confrontation, Peter appears to love and care about his son.
The film leads to a conclusion that you’ll see coming before you enter the theatre, and although the final five minutes is strong enough, it’s not earned because of the over-the-top, heavy-handed and albeit half-assed experience leading up to it. The Son is a calamity. I don’t know how this happened, but I wish it hadn’t for the sake of everyone else. I read the description for Zeller’s The Mother, and… I’m doubting my commitment to him. The Father was a masterpiece and I can’t take that away from him. But if The Mother is anything like The Son, I’m sure we’re in for another quadruple dose of misery porn, and honey, I’m out.