Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern, Vanessa Kirby, Zen McGrath, and Anthony Hopkins star in an agonizing drama.
By all appearances, it’s a tragedy in the making.
Unhappy Nicholas (Zen McGrath) lives unhappily with his unhappy mother, Kate (Laura Dern), and wants very much to live with his happy father, Peter (Hugh Jackman), nevermind that Peter entered into an adulterous affair with happy Beth (Vanessa Kirby), thereby ruining his marriage and breaking up the household. Peter now lives happily with Beth and their newborn infant, but upon hearing Nicholas’ plea, he quickly caves, overruling Beth’s natural concerns.
Very soon, everyone is unhappy.
Two years ago, Anthony Hopkins starred in The Father, an adaptation of an acclaimed French-language play by novelist Florian Zellner that was then translated into English by Christopher Hampton (Les Liaisons Dangereuses). Hampton wrote the screen version, helmed by Zellner in his feature directorial debut, and I was very much impressed by the film, which staged the lead character’s splintering existence “as a horrifying reality.” I could relate to it on a personal level, too.
The film raised my expectations for The Son, which is adapted from Zellner’s stage play of the same name, which, like The Father, was translated into English by Christopher Hampton and staged in London. (In between the stage versions of The Father and The Son, The Mother premiered, but that’s not yet been adapted.) The script for the screen version is credited to both Zellner and Hampton, with Zellner once again directing.
Unlike The Father, though, The Son is a forthright melodrama, and suffers from any comparison. Its narrative proceeds, inexorably depicting the slow self-strangulation of a teenager who is not merely unhappy, but is clinically depressed. Unable and unwilling to address Nicholas’ serious mental-health issue, Peter continues on his merry, busy way, leaving Nicholas in the hands of Beth, who is consumed with caring for their newborn child, and is already stressed out herself.
Acting more out of guilt over his adulterous affair, which clearly destabilized the unsteady Nicholas in the first place, Peter steadfastly pursues his own career goals, while throwing money at Nicholas and pretending that he has any idea how to raise or help him. He thinks he is acting differently than his own father did, but in truth, he is acting just as horribly, though perhaps in a more dignified manner.
It’s agonizing to watch the slow decline in Nicholas, whose simmering anger and seething resentment gradually becomes manifest, mostly expressed against the long-suffering Beth, who is trapped at home, while Peter skips above the fray. With a self-confidence born of his upbringing and professional success, Peter thinks he knows how to “fix” Nicholas, yet in truth, he hasn’t a clue.
The actors all bring their anguished characters to life, which only makes watching them all dance toward doom all the more difficult to watch. It’s like watching a slow-motion automobile accident, frame by frame, without being able to do a thing to stop it.
What made The Father freshly disturbing to watch was that it developed empathy for its characters in an unexpected, cinematic fashion. What makes The Son difficult to watch is that it evinces no sympathy for its beleaguered characters, and does so in a profoundly straightforward fashion.
The film opens Friday, January 20, in Dallas, Frisco, Fort Worth, Garland, Grapevine, and Plano via Sony Pictures Classics. Get tickets here. For more information about the film, visit the official site.