The Son (2022)
Directed by Florian Zeller
Written by Florian Zeller, Christopher Hampton
Starring Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern, Vanessa Kirby
Release Date November 25th, 2022
Published November 29th, 2022
The Son stars Hugh Jackman as business dad, Peter Miller. Peter is a business dad who does business things like staring pensively out of a window, wearing nice suits, and ignoring his family. Peter's business dad persona is shaken when his ex-wife, played by Laura Dern, turns up at his door one evening. The ex-wife, Kate, informs Business Dad Peter that their teenage son, Nicholas (Zen McGrath), whom Peter has dutifully ignored per the rules of being a Business Dad, has been skipping school and she can no longer keep track of him.
Kate tells Business Dad that Nicholas wants to live with him and after consulting with his new wife, the brilliant, and completely wasted here, Vanessa Kirby, he agrees. Now he can truly be a Business Dad and ignore his son directly. No surprise then that Nicholas immediately begins skipping school again. New wife catches him hanging out in a park instead of going to school. Business Dad tries talking to his son and crying but it doesn't work, and Nicholas becomes ever more despondent until he attempts to kill himself because Business Dad is always business-ing.
Where director Florian Zeller made a genuinely thoughtful and insightful film about mental health and aging in The Father, he has crafted a dramatically inert and lacking in insight film in The Son. Hugh Jackman does his best cry acting since The Fountain and the result is a movie that even Laura Dern and Vanessa Kirby cannot lift to a level of being watchable. The problems are evident in a story that has nowhere to go. Business Dad is bad and wrong and should not be a Business Dad is the level of insight we get in The Son.
It's all dad's fault that his son has severe mental health problems. It's his fault for working too much, for breaking the norms of society by, shock of shock, leaving his wife for a younger woman. He's wrong for being too rich and successful and for traveling too much. That's the surface level critiques that The Son appears to be lobbing at this Hugh Jackman character and his response is to cry or to sulk in his big corner office, staring wistfully out of high rise windows.
Truly, I am trying to understand the purpose of The Son other than pure misery porn. The film crafts a character in Nicholas who has no way forward, he's a boulder rolling down hill toward tragedy. That's not a bad place to start with a character but the movie gives him no nuance, there is no insight into who Nicholas is or what drives him. The journey from introducing this unpleasant teenage child to the inevitable tragedy seemingly coming at the end is a series of miserable scenes that do explain why the kid is a trainwreck in progress but there is simply nothing else happening here.
Attempts to give the movie something beyond Business Dad bad, sad teenager wants to die, involves introducing a character played by Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins plays Business Dad's own Business Dad, a true prick, a hateful, bitter man, who also happens to see right through Jackman's Business Dad. When Hopkins' character mocks Jackman's character for seeming to blame him for his failure as a father, it's cruel and lacking in empathy and self regard, and it is the single most honest moment in an otherwise phony movie.
Hopkins is unquestionably supposed to be a villain here and yet, he makes the character seem cruel but with a purpose. He's the first character who does something other than sulk, cry, or run to another room to avoid the drama. I don't want to say that Hopkins' openly cruel, arrogant, and bitter character is refreshing, but I am struggling to describe it as anything other than that when compared to everything else in this mind-numbing melodrama.
How does a movie have the brilliant Vanessa Kirby and relegate her to leaving the room when the drama kicks in. Her character exists to be called away to check on a baby. That is until she gets shuffled offscreen permanently with the excuse that she needs to protect her baby from all the drama. This is not how you use your Vanessa Kirby. Kirby is a brilliant actress, having her constantly leaving the room to check on an unseen baby is a weird choice for how to use her.
And then there is Laura Dern. You have to screw up pretty bad if you can manage to make Laura Dern anything less than brilliant. Dern's Kate exists to put the plot in motion. Then she's basically on hand to answer the phone and look concerned. She does get to cry, though she's no match for a weepy Hugh Jackman. Jackman's sappy performance undermines everything around him. It's not just hard to believe that Hugh Jackman has a son, I left this movie questioning whether he has spoken with others who have sons or daughters, or dogs. It's a weirdly absurd performance.
I cannot blame the kid, Zen McGrath. This young man was handed an impossible character, one with little or no nuance, and was seemingly instructed to emote loudly or mope broadly. He does each of these things in notably over the top fashion. Again, I think the kid was playing what was in front of him and not having a lot of experience, he trusted that the rest of the movie would provide depth for his character to exist within. The filmmakers let this kid down.
I have certainly mocked this movie, and rightfully so. That said, The Son is also an example of the modern trend toward broad appeal mediocrity. Thus, The Son has a veneer of competence that only fades upon reflection. The Son has the professional look of a well made movie and the story and performances of a bad Lifetime movie. There are pretentions toward something Award worthy but it's more "Oscar Gold" than actual Oscar effort.
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