In 2021, during the COVID Oscars, Sir Anthony Hopkins surprised awards handicappers by winning his second Best Actor statuette for his bravura turn in the family melodrama The Father. Written and directed by Florian Zeller, who adapted his own play, The Father saw Hopkins bring a quiet power to his tender portrayal of an aging man struggling with memory loss, and it boasted clever editing that complemented its powerful script.
Zeller’s follow-up film, The Son, is also based on a play he wrote, and it also features Hopkins, though it stars Hugh Jackman, though unfortunately, it throws all modicum of restraint out the window, turning thoughtful analysis into puerile histrionics that are both unconvincing and, ultimately, unmoving in their insincerity.
Jackman plays Peter Miller, a workaholic attorney in Manhattan who enjoys the idyll of his new, younger wife Beth (Vanessa Kirby). Their peaceful existence is shattered when his ex-wife Kate (Laura Dern) alerts him that their 16-year-old son Nicholas (Zen McGrath) has been skipping school and suffering from depression that’s well beyond the usual teen angst. In the two hours that follow, Peter struggles to understand what has caused Nicholas to be in such profound anguish and pain while thinking back wistfully on days when Nicholas was a sweet six-year-old who played gleefully with his father.
The problem with The Son is that both Zeller’s skin-deep script and, ultimately, the audience, are unable to pinpoint the root of Nicholas’ torments. Instead, the film asks you to take for granted that this young man is suffering profoundly simply because that is what happens to teenagers in this society, though his parents’ divorce offers a possible explanation. At times, Nicholas makes vague allusions to the idea that he resents the way his father treated his mother at one point, and there is also a scene that suggests Peter could have a penchant for violence. Peter’s excessive devotion to his work is also referenced.
But none of this trifecta of potential maladies is ultimately explored or teased out in any satisfying way as the reason for Nicholas’ sorrow. This is suffering for the sake of suffering, perhaps one of the deadliest sins that a family drama can commit. The great ones — think Ordinary People or Terms of Endearment — slowly peel back the emotional layers to explore the years of torment that people can inflict upon each other. Those that ultimately fail to grip the audience, like The Son, are more interested in jerking out tears than in softly producing them.
Make no mistake, The Son will absolutely pull at your heartstrings, and it may even leave you somewhat devastated. That is, after all, the point. But not even the wonderful performances by everyone in the cast — most notably Dern and the young McGrath — will cover the obvious emotional holes in the plot, or be sufficient enough to glaze over some of the characters’ sloppy lines and even more sloven behavior. You don’t need to be a parent — you need only common sense — to know that some of the decisions Peter and even Kate make (and fail to make) supposedly on Nicholas’ behalf are choices that no rational person (let alone a purportedly loving parent) would make. The behavior is not real and so too, therefore, are the tears that will follow.
To make matters worse, The Son makes almost a Bingo card out of hitting dysfunctional family drama cliches, particularly those focused on screwy relationships between absent, detached fathers and their resentful offspring. In one particularly hackneyed scene, Peter visits his own father, Anthony (Hopkins), while on a work trip. This encounter has no apparent purpose other than to permit Anthony to lash out cruelly against Peter’s decades-long resentment that his father cared more about his career than his child and then, to later give Peter an opportunity to lament the fact that he’s becoming like his own father. Peter’s absenteeism is also reflected in his relationship with his new wife Beth and their newborn Theo, though even that situation is treated cavalierly, so there’s not much dramatic meat on its bones.
It is too bad that the script at the core of The Son so miserably fails at depicting a gripping family drama. Everything else in this otherwise meticulous film works quite marvelously. This includes not just the acting by the incredibly talented cast, but also Hans Zimmer‘s touching score, and, once again, careful editing from Yorgos Lamprinos, who also cut The Father and whose work is important in furthering the narrative during a critical sequence. However, no matter how good the performances are and the below-the-line efforts, they’re not enough to overcome a frustrating story that is off-putting almost from its inception.
Zeller’s first family-focused play was actually titled The Mother, which preceded both of the pieces that the director decided to turn into films. It is unclear whether the tremendous success of The Father movie and what I expect to be a devastating critical and box office performance for The Son will prompt him to turn that original story into a movie of its own. Despite this sophomore slump, one hopes that Zeller will direct that movie, as he clearly has much to say about familial relationships, particularly when it comes to how mental illness can put a strain on them. Sadly, The Son simply was not the best way to approach such a complex story.
The Son is now playing in theaters nationwide courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.