“The Son” is a prequel to a movie called “The Father” by the same Writer and Director. It has a difficult balance to work out – how to make a movie about a young person dealing with clinical depression, but not make a movie that is depressing. It is a rough road to travel. But the performances are almost enough to deliver that balance. However, the manipulative script undercuts the final results.
According to playwright Anton Chekov, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” He also said: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.” Chekov would be right at home in the New York household of Peter Miller (played by Hugh Jackman).
Peter is with his new wife Beth (played by Vanessa Kirby), and their new baby. Peter had divorced his first wife Kate (played by Laura Dern) after he fell in love with Beth. Beth is much younger and she is not enamored with Kate. But Kate lives with the teenage boy named Nicholas (played by Zen McGrath), who is Peter and Kate’s son.
Kate tells Peter that things are going very poorly with Nicholas. He leaves her house everyday, but he has not gone to school for at least a month. That is very troublesome, and Nicholas says he does not want to live with his mother any more. He would rather live with his father, Peter. That might be an issue, because of the new baby in the household.
Nicholas has deep emotional problems, but he does want anybody to know. Perhaps if he went to live with Peter and Beth, he would be able to turn his attitude around. Peter has a very important position at a downtown law firm. He is a potential candidate for a position as an adviser to a man running for the Senate. If that comes through, Peter might need to move to Washington DC. That is where his father lives.
Peter’s father is a Washington VIP named Anthony (played by Anthony Hopkins). By the way – this is the same character from the movie “The Father”. Peter has a rocky relationship with Anthony. He goes to see him at one point. They start with a cordial conversation, but it degrades into Anthony pointing out every failure that Peter has in his life. Peter knows again why they have a strained father-and-son relation.
Nicholas suffers from a severe depression. He has not gone to school, because he does not see a reason to do so. When he comes to live with Peter and Beth, it seems that he has started to turn a corner. Nicholas says that he is going to his new school and starting to make new friends. Peter and Kate have lunch one day, and they think back when Nicholas was just a young boy. He was sweet and charming and full of life. But now, he is a different person.
Peter and Beth, and the baby, are attempting to adjust to Nicholas being part of the household. But when Beth finds a knife that Nicholas has hidden in his room, they ask him about it. He tells them that he knows about the hunting rifle that Peter stores behind the washing machine. Peter says it was a gift from his father, Anthony. But he has never used it. So, Nicholas says if Peter has a rifle – there should be no problem if he has a knife.
But Nicholas has been lying about attending school, again. He is deeply in a depressed mood all the time. He has nothing to live for, so that hidden knife becomes a way of release. He wants out of his funk, and he wants out of this world. His talks with a therapist have been a lie, the same as any time that he talks with Peter. Nicholas cannot explain himself, because he does not believe there is anything to live for.
There is a failed suicide attempt. Beth finds Nicholas, bleeding out. Peter and Kate go to the hospital, and the doctors there advise strongly that Nicholas be kept with them for his own safety. Nicholas begs and pleads with his parents. He cannot stay there in the hospital. They are mistreating him and they think he is a nutcase. Peter is torn up about what to do. He does not want to see Nicholas suffer any more, so he and Kate agree to take him home. But the thing that Nicholas remembers most about his father’s house is where that rifle is hidden…
“The Son” centers on the family of the main character from the movie “The Father”. Anthony Hopkins carried that movie, and here his character is only briefly in the movie. Most of heavy emotional lifting is done by Hugh Jackman. His performance is well up to the demands of this role. Laura Dern is also very good as the ex-wife. Her role is not quite as crucial, but she delivers for the troubled character.
However, playing the focal point of Nicholas, Zen McGrath is not given a well-defined role. Yes, he is distracted and stammering at times – and his character cannot find the right words to describe his anguish. He remains a cipher and unknowable as a character. Yet it is his presence that is supposed to drive the other characters.
Watching a movie about a depressed young man, and his inability to deal with reality – it is difficult to accept it all. This is a completely unhappy family, and they are very unhappy in their own way. So, playwright Chekov had it right, all those years ago. There is quite a lot of pain on the screen, but in the end – it does not seem to amount to much.
“The Son” is a long, hard look at very depressing subject. The results are less than stellar, given the fine performances of the talented cast.
Directed by: Florian Zeller
Screenplay by: Florian Zeller, Christopher Hampton
Based on a play: Le Fils (by Florian Zeller)
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern, Vanessa Kirby, Zen McGrath, Anthony Hopkins
Cinematography: Ben Smithard
Edited by: Yorgos Lamprinos
Music by: Hans Zimmer
Distributed by: Sony Pictures Classics
Release date: January 20, 2023
Length: 123 minutes\
MPAA rating: PG-13 for mature thematic content involving suicide, and strong language.