Review by Cole Groth
Florian Zeller’s directorial debut, The Father, stands out as one of the greatest modern dramas, winning two Academy Awards, including one for his adaptation of the stage play he wrote of the same name, Zeller crafted a story perfectly that used Anthony Hopkins’s strengths to show the emotional trauma aging has on generations of people. His total command over the screen was remarkable, leading to Sony Pictures Classics greenlighting a second film from his trilogy of stage plays, titled The Son. Unlike its predecessor, Zeller is tackling childhood depression and self-harm, an issue far too familiar for current generations. Sparks of The Father shine through Hugh Jackman’s brilliant performance, but this experience is far too frustrating to feel as heartbreaking as the original.
The film’s premise is simple. Like before, Zeller takes a few characters and locks them in a few locations, forcing them to confront their emotional traumas and shortcomings over the 123-minute runtime. We follow Peter (Jackman), a wealthy and hard-working man who hasn’t cared for his son, Nicholas (Zen McGrath), after his divorce from his wife (Laura Dern). Living with his girlfriend (Vanessa Kirby), Peter has his life uprooted after Nicholas moves back in with him, feeling that his relationship with his mom has gotten far too strained. Nicholas is also dealing with severe depression and has resorted to self-harm to stop the pain.
The problem with Zeller tackling these issues is that it feels like a tired repetition of an issue that plagues younger generations. Depression has become a much more nuanced issue over the past few decades, and his approach is somewhat archaic. Peter is far too self-absorbed to deal with his son’s severe problems in any meaningful way, which will have many viewers wanting to pull their hair out as he gives lame advice on how to deal with it. Perhaps Zeller intended to make a statement about how parents need to educate themselves on mental health issues, but it seems he doesn’t understand how to deal with them, either.
Though the script isn’t very good, it’s not a total loss. Hugh Jackman gives it his all as Peter, with plenty of emotional scenes adding to his already stacked career of excellent performances. Laura Dern and Vanessa Kirby do a great job, too, but they don’t have enough agency to feel anything more than underwritten side characters. Anthony Hopkins appears in a single scene and kills it as a nasty father who has no regrets about his poor parenting decisions. The focus of most critics is Zen McGrath’s performance. As a newcomer to the industry, it feels somewhat unfair to him that he has to stand up to Zeller’s melodramatic script. He’s unfortunately not suited yet to feel more than a stilted outlier in a sea of great acting. This could be a promising start for a career, however. He might have elevated this film to something much better if he had returned to this role after a few other performances.
Technically, the production is not too different from The Father. Each set looks realistic, the cinematography is nice, and the score, from an always-incredible Hans Zimmer, does a good job of pushing the drama. Cinematographer Ben Smithard manages to capture each emotion with raw intensity. I can’t help but think that this would’ve worked better if the locations were restricted to a single set like the previous film. Zeller works best when directing a play, and he seems somewhat lost when incorporating a half-dozen locations into his story.
I had hoped that The Son would capture the harrowing intensity of The Father, but instead of shedding tears, I wanted to sit on my phone during the last few scenes. The first two acts are pretty generic, but the third is terrible. Zeller’s trilogy concludes with a film titled The Mother, and if Sony Classics decides to pursue a filmed conclusion to this duology, I hope it’ll be more of The Father rather than The Son.
The Son releases in select theaters on January 20th.