“Your daddy wasn’t nice to you. So what? Just fucking get over it!” When Anthony Hopkins sneered that line during his brief appearance in The Son (where he plays the titular Son’s grandfather and father to Hugh Jackman’s character, Peter), I think we, as the audience, are meant to be shocked at the callousness of it: the way he is acutely aware of his own failures as a parent but refuses to take any accountability for his actions or do anything to ease his son’s trauma.
I suppose, in comparison, we’re meant to Peter as the one who breaks this cycle of generational trauma by being there for his son in times of struggle: except, he isn’t.
In fact, throughout the drama movie, as the Marvel movie actor begs son Nicholas (Zen McGrath) to open up to him, you almost get the sense that the film is portraying the titular character as a villain, and that it is Peter who is the real victim in all of this. As he appeals time and time again to Nicholas, you get the sense that if he just opened up to his father and decided to “fucking get over” his parents’ divorce, then he’d be cured.
But mental health is a lot more nuanced than that, and yet the acute depression Nicholas is meant to be exhibiting in this film feels, at best, under-researched and at worst, superficial. Although McGrath should be praised for undertaking such a complex role, for most of the film, he fails to give it the nuance it deserves — switching between really fake-looking crying and lurking in dark corners.
Of course, the lurking isn’t necessarily his fault — he’s just following what’s in the script — but it seems like the movie is trying too hard to justify the perspective of Peter’s new wife (played by Vanessa Kirby), who clearly finds Nicholas unsettling and a little creepy. I don’t need to explain to you why portraying a young person struggling with their mental health as creepy/offputting is problematic, but perhaps what is worse is the character’s lack of depth beyond surface-level tropes and external behaviours.
We know he’s struggling with his parents’ divorce — that he himself isn’t even really sure why he feels this way — but we don’t really get the opportunity to know more about who he is outside of his illness, and what his life was like in the gap between sunny beach vacations with his father and his current state.
Compared to her on-screen son, Jurassic Park cast member Laura Dern is a more compelling performer as worried mother, Kate. You get the sense that she has a lot of unresolved issues about how her relationship with Peter ended that would’ve been intriguing to explore, but it feels like we barely scratch the surface on who Nicholas is, as he is talked about more than he is talked to, with the film appearing to focus more on how his depression affects others than it does affect him — which, again, is problematic in the sense that he is almost portrayed like a burden.
I can’t tell whether the film portraying Nicholas in this way is intentional or the result of poor writing: but it’s no less harmful. There’s also the fact that self-harm in this film is portrayed with the same amount of nuance you’d expect from “your scars are beautiful” infographics with Tumblr, with unnecessary emphasis on past and present self-harm scars and Nicholas’ enthusiastic explanation of how self-harming feels like a “release”.
Moving away from the writing, the film itself is shot very artistically — but the use of blatant screenwriting tropes like Checkov’s Gun make it hard to view the film as having any kind of complexity beyond the obvious. And the thing is, they had plenty of time to build in that complexity too: the movie was way too long, and felt less slice-of-life and more vapid and directionless.
That being said, the little substance the movie has is delivered by Jackman, who genuinely delivers a very emotional, nuanced performance as Peter, but the ending itself does the movie a disservice. Although it is, of course, important to present the reality of depression, I don’t see the purpose of making a film like this without any kind of lingering hope. What kind of message does it send to the audience, who may also be suffering from mental illness?
Ultimately, if you want to watch a Florian Zeller movie, skip this one and watch thriller movie The Father instead — it’s a lot better.
The Son review
Hugh Jackman’s compelling performance isn’t enough to provide this film the depth it’s lacking.