The Son Review: Florian Zeller’s follow-up to The Father Is Sadistic

Venice: Excellent performances by Hugh Jackman and Laura Dern fail to save Zeller’s emotionally-pornographic tale of adolescent depression.

Florian Zeller doesn’t make films, he does birth control at 24fps. Inspired by his play of the same name and adding rich cinematic dimensions to the text’s ingenious structural conceit, Zeller’s brilliant and hard-hitting The Father shook people as it combined the confusion of suffering with dementia and the grief of losing a loved one conveyed one thing. Its follow-up, also born on the stage, puts the writer-director’s harrowing debut in comparison to a Paddington film (in terms of depression and quality alike).

Stripped of any puzzle-box magic that enabled Zeller’s previous film to save profound traces of humanity from the massacre of their mental illness, The Son offers a stark and straightforward family portrait that emphasizes the futility of depression through the simplicity of its plot. Is it an unusually candid portrayal of parental helplessness in the face of a devastatingly cruel illness that might offer some measure of solace to those doomed to live with unfathomable guilt over something they could hardly avoid? Despite some great inventions and a total lack of medicines, I’m afraid that’s the case.

At the same time, “The Son” is so pornographic in its pain (and so utterly airless and light-hearted) that it can feel like an argument against having children. What joy could such torment be worth? How are parents supposed to accept that loving their children is not always enough to save them? These are bold and valid questions that every film should ask—”Better to see something in a dim light than not seeing it at all,” one character rightly points out—but Zeller phrases them in such an awkward and stilted way that that love in the end seems more of an obligation than a reason for living.

Hugh Jackman stars as Peter, the kind of father that many fathers in the audience understand all too well, in a film that makes good use of his cute vulnerability. I mean which of us has not divorced Laura Dern (similarly fantastic as the frustrated Kate), remarried and raised a child with the much younger Vanessa Kirby (strong but sidelined in the role of Beth) in the spacious Manhattan apartment that comes with the salary pay our elite lawyer? No, Peter is so uncomfortably familiar with his supposed determination to give his teenage son — a souvenir from the Kate years — all the love his own father never showed him (“The Father” is directed by an irritable Anthony Hopkins who stops by for a one-scene cameo that briefly and erroneously hints at some sort of shared Zeller Cinematic Universe).

Easier said than done. In fact, we have a feeling that Peter’s “failures” with Nicholas may have played a role in his decision to start a new family and start over. 17-year-old Nicholas is played by Zen McGrath, a young newcomer stranded in the role of a recessive non-character who comes across as more like a generic teenage depression archetype than his own human-eyed delight that Peter is so affectionate about himself reminded of his upbringing as a child. He was sulking in his room, skipping school every day for the last month and scaring Kate so much that she insists he live with Peter, Beth and baby Theo for a while.

The situation is not exactly improved by the change of scenery. It’s bad enough for Peter that Nicholas stays down and keeps Beth on edge with his benevolent incel energy – we’re guessing this isn’t the kind of movie Kevin we need to talk about, even if it is proving difficult to relax after that erroneous mention of an antique gun in Act I – but worst of all is how living with his eldest son forces Peter to face his own guilt and feel the strain of caring for father and child at the same time be.

Even in its most airless form (a purgatory that Zeller settles into from the start), “The Son” resonates with uncomfortable truths big and small. Infusing the role with just enough clueless vanity to make Peter appear like a life-size Gregory Peck, Jackman draws real tragedy from the short-sightedness of his character’s logical approach to an illogical problem.

Many of the film’s early scenes abound with the deadlocked frustration of a parent trying to decode their child’s mindset from the hieroglyphs of slammed doors and murmured conversations. Peter assumes that Nicholas’ depression must have something to do with his love life and doesn’t know where to turn after that; For all the stone-cold rigor of the Zeller and Christopher Hampton script, no film has ever so effectively portrayed the reliance of parents on their children’s school performance as a measure of their own success.

Yet “The Son” is too stifled by the rigor of its writing and the sterility of its setting for the film’s characters to grow beyond the scenarios they portray. Yes, depression is a soul-sucking monster of a mental illness, and it’s admirable that Zeller would rather be plump and broadly truthful in his portrayal of it than compellingly and perniciously false, but stripping Nicholas of any identifiable traits beyond his illness will do artificially his terms, and — callous as it feels to admit it — makes the character far more annoying than he needs to be to frustrate his parents.

Equally unnerving is Zeller’s decision to trap the child in a world so dreary and colorless, which sounds wrong in a film that eschews the level of subjectivity that defined The Father (an odd choice given how difficult it is may be in this story to reconcile the overlapping and often conflicting responsibilities that people in a family may have for one another). With Peter and Kate constantly thrown off balance, audiences spend every minute of this film waiting for the other shoe to fall, and this time there’s no formal structure to help capture that schism. The one moment of hilarity — an impromptu family dance sequence set to a Tom Jones classic — doesn’t feel as much like anything as that obligatory scene of forced happiness in the sad film where everything goes to shit. Not even Hopkins’ appearance cuts deep enough to draw blood, even if it is necessary to ascertain the hereditary types of injuries Peter dreads passing on to his own son.

The full extent of this pain is only revealed in the final 25 minutes, making for the most sadistic ending of any film besides Lars von Trier’s Antichrist. It is not What happens, it’s so punitive, of necessity – in broad terms, The Son could not have come to any other conclusion – but how Zeller rubs his characters’ faces in it, and ours with them too. While a movie of great value that’s willing to confront the horrific fact that love isn’t always enough, The Son doesn’t know how to do it without spitting at us and delivering one git after another in the process the sharpness of Peter’s helplessness is offset by the insidiousness of Zeller’s control.

I can’t remember the last time I cried so much or was upset with every tear I shed. I ran home to hug my own son as soon as this movie was over, relieved that he’s still only two years old but also more scared than ever that he wasn’t going to stay that way. As I wrapped my arms around his small body and lifted him into the air, I wondered if today’s unfathomable joy could possibly be worth tomorrow’s potential heartache. It’s a doubt every parent has experienced at some point, but also one that filled me with gratitude that I didn’t see that film yesterday.

Class: C

The Father premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics will release it in theaters on Friday November 11th.

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Lindsay Lowe

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