Given that director and co-writer Florian Zeller’s “The Father” was a powerful and nuanced and creatively presented original work with Anthony Hopkins winning an Oscar for his moving portrayal of a man with advancing dementia, it’s truly shocking how Zeller’s “The Son” is such a tone-deaf, emotionally manipulative, leaden stumble into the abyss.
While not a prequel or in any way related to “The Father,” this is part of a Zeller trilogy of plays, which also include “Le Père” (which was adapted into “The Father”) and “The Mother.” Perhaps “The Son” was an effective stage drama when it premiered in Paris in 2018 and was later translated into English and presented in London a year later, but as a work of cinema, it’s sorely lacking in insight, character development and authentically earned emotion.
Plot twists are telegraphed scenes in advance. The dialogue is filled with speeches and turns of phrases that sound overwritten. Perhaps most egregious of all, we’re hit with an epilogue that toys with the viewer’s emotions in an almost cruel manner.
Hugh Jackman delivers an earnest performance and almost manages to overcome the screenplay’s shortcomings as Peter Miller, a successful and workaholic New York lawyer who’s on the verge of landing a dream job as a political consultant in Washington, D.C. Career-wise, things couldn’t be better, and Peter’s home life is also on the upswing, now that he’s living in Brooklyn with his beautiful and quite younger partner Beth (Vanessa Kirby) and they’ve recently welcomed a newborn son.
All seems idyllic — until the moment when Peter’s ex-wife Kate (Laura Dern) shows up the door in a state of panic, informing Peter that their 17-year-old son Nicholas (Zen McGrath) has been ditching school for a month and has been cutting himself. Kate tells Peter that Nicholas’ cold and distant behavior scares her, and it’s decided Nicholas will come live with Peter for a while.
Of course, that means Nicholas is coming to live not only with his father but with the woman he blames for wrecking his parents’ marriage, and his infant half-brother. Poor Beth correctly surmises she’s going to be the one at home with Nicholas for long stretches of time, while Peter continues to work long hours in Manhattan.
Lensed in somber and depressing tones with ominous shadows everywhere, “The Son” repeatedly engages in heavy-handed messaging, e.g., when Peter notices a new intern at the firm and clearly wishes his son could be like this clearly bright and ambitious and well-adjusted young man, as he watches him walk down the hallway. Equally off-base are the rare light moments between father and son, as when Peter joins Nicholas for some cereal as they sit and watch cartoons on a Saturday night, as if Nicholas is 7 years old and not 17. (Not to mention the obligatory flashback scenes to that one sun-dappled vacation when Nicholas was a little boy and seemed happy and well-adjusted.)
Even though the warning signs are everywhere that Nicholas is deeply troubled and in need of professional help, Peter and Kate both act as if they’ve never heard of depression. It’s as if “The Son” is mired in the 1940s and not the present day.
The many Major Confrontational Scenes aren’t much better. A typical exchange between father and son:
“You have to do something, you can’t just let things go like this.”
“I can’t deal with any of it. … I don’t know how to describe it.”
“Just tell me in your own words.”
“It’s life. It’s weighing me down.”
“What is it about life that isn’t working for you?”
This conversation, for one.
The most effective scene in “The Son” takes place in the mansion of Peter’s father (Hopkins in a blistering cameo), where old wounds are re-opened and Peter once again complains about his father abandoning their dying mother, and his father tells him to “just f---ing get over it.” At least Peter’s father is willing to acknowledge things were terrible, unlike Peter and Kate, who are in a constant state of denial and keep making the wrong decisions about Nicholas’ well-being.
One of the biggest problems with “The Son,” unfortunately, is the casting of the key role of Nicholas. The young Australian actor Zen McGrath doesn’t have extensive credits, and he comes across as too inexperienced and unskilled to convincingly play a young man who feels like he’s drowning every day and isn’t sure why. It’s an uncomfortably amateurish performance. (It doesn’t help that the character of Nicholas is underwritten, and we never get beneath the surface and gain any insights into his depression. He’s just sad and immature and angry, and that’s that.)
“The Son” is one of the most disappointing films of the last few years.