When I looked The father in 2020 I was amazed. The film, about a man named Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, and his strained relationship with his daughter (Olivia Colman), was an authentic portrayal of what it’s like to deal with a difficult illness emotionally. Movies about Alzheimer’s tend to focus on the perspective of the sufferer, but The father dared to take into account how the people around them also suffer.
The film was the successful debut of writer-director Florian Zeller, who edited his own play to brilliant effect. The film went on to earn six Oscar nominations, winning two: one for Best Screenplay, the other for Best Actor (for Hopkins). That’s an impressive feat for a first film, but not surprising given how well the film explored Anthony’s inner self. Zeller’s masterful handling of diegetic space and storytelling immediately put him at the top of my radar, and I awaited his next project with great anticipation.
That next project is here – and it is The son, also based on a play by Zeller. (The Holy Spirit is not yet in the works, but I choose to hold out hope.) The film follows Nicholas (Zen McGrath), a 17-year-old who feels he can no longer live with his mother Kate (Laura Dern). He seeks refuge from his inner turmoil by moving in with his father Peter (Hugh Jackman), a successful businessman, Peter’s new partner Beth (Vanessa Kirby), and their young son. But Beth meets Nicholas with trepidation, and Peter gets a big new job, so he barely gives his son the time of day.
But Peter has to pay attention, because Nicholas is in crisis. It turns out he hasn’t been to school in a month, something that baffles both Kate and Peter. In a moment between Nicholas and his father, he makes his pain clear by saying, “I don’t know what’s happening to me.” It’s clear that their son needs help that neither of them can provide – or rather, it’s obvious to anyone watching the movie, but this stunningly obvious fact seems to elude both parents for a while.
It pains me to say that The son is not just a disappointing sequel to The father. It’s also a horrible, irresponsible movie. The real problem is the fatal misunderstanding about mental illness: it’s like every line is read straight from a pamphlet called “How not talk about mental health.” All of this is reflected in the movie’s stunningly awful ending. If for some reason you still like to see The son– and I wouldn’t blame you; I was once excited – now it’s time to leave, because there are tons of spoilers coming your way. (I’m not quite sure if you like a movie like The sontelegraphing your every move, but hey, I can understand not wanting to know the ending until you see it.)
Throughout the film, things have gotten progressively worse – for Nicholas, for his parents, and frankly for everyone watching – and every moment it seems like things are going to improve, they end up getting worse. One minute, Nicholas is happily dancing with his father and Beth, and seconds later, Peter and Beth hug, completely forgetting that Nicholas is there. In another scene, Nicholas offers to babysit his baby half-brother, only for Beth to freak out at the very idea of a “weirdo” like Nicholas taking care of her child. This constant – and I mean constant – cycle of Nicholas lifting and abandoning makes the film’s conclusion even more apparent.
After all the mistakes and slights his parents make that would feel right at home in an after-school special, Nicholas finally tries to take his own life. Fortunately, he is found in time and Nicholas’s parents decide to place him in intensive psychiatric care. Well, it’s not so much that they decide to give Nicholas the help he needs; it’s more like a doctor forces their hand to do so, and they agree.
Finally there is a sense of peace. It feels like with Nicholas in treatment, Kate, Peter and Beth can finally live their lives without the burden of their depressed son. That’s a pretty awful feeling, and even writing those words made my skin crawl. But The son isn’t the masterclass in sentimentality and understanding that it so clearly thinks it is. His self-importance and overbearing score will club you over the head, making it hard to ever come across as sincere. (Hans Zimmer, you betrayed me.) What the movie really seems to be saying is that these people can go on with their lives without a problem like Nicholas (ugh) (ick).
The most pivotal scene comes next when Kate and Peter meet the doctor in charge of Nicholas’s care. He is stern but professional and warns them that if he is briefly reintroduced to their son, he will immediately beg and beg to be taken home. The doctor explains that he has seen this happen repeatedly and that it is imperative that the patient remain under the care of the hospital. The doctor couldn’t be clearer: let Nicholas come home, and it’s almost certain he’ll try to take his own life again.
What follows is a lot of screaming and crying as Nicholas does exactly what the doctor says he will do. This can (and really should) can be a hugely emotional scene, but everything feels so hollow. The movie has made it clear time and time again that it doesn’t care about Nicholas, and frankly, it doesn’t care about his parents either. They think so, but they are so invested in themselves and their own lives that they look past him. It’s unfair to have Nicholas begging and pleading with people who seem totally devastated; it’s very distasteful and disturbing as we’ve seen the movie torture him with no repercussions. Even worse, it’s clear that what we’re looking at is acting, in more ways than one.
In the end, Kate and Peter do something right: they listen to the doctor and refuse to take Nicholas home. It’s a tough decision for a parent to make, but they do it because they know they’ll be better off in the long run. Or so you would think. Moments later, they’re in a car heading home, and the ridiculous music kicks in as they share a look that tells you everything you need to know – these irresponsible people will continue to be irresponsible.
Soon after, Nicholas is back home with his parents. Beth has taken the baby to visit her parents, so it’s Kate, Peter and Nicholas again, the family unit he longed for but no longer has. There is a moment of serenity as the three talk to each other, and Nicholas gives an extended monologue about how he loves his family. It should feel touching, but the movie didn’t do anything to show he cares about Nicholas, so it’s just one of many moments to remind you The son is based on a play.
Literally moments after his parents tell them not to let him out of their sight, Nicholas heads off alone to take a shower, which is apparently totally fine and none of their business. It’s a red flag the size of North America, but Kate and Peter are too preoccupied with themselves and each other to notice. There is an eerie calm as the two talk about going to a movie as a family, but it is quickly broken by the sudden blast of a gun.
I step back. Peter has a gun in his apartment that his father gave him. The fact that he never thought to get the gun out of the house he brought back his high-risk, suicidal child tells you everything you need to know. Finally all of The sonThe worst Chekhov instincts have blossomed.
You’d think the movie would end there, but you’d be wrong. We then move to the future, several years later, where Peter has a long conversation with Nicholas. Nicholas talks about how he’s so happy now – he’s found the love of his life and moved to Toronto, which makes him happier than New York City ever could. (As a Canadian, this is the only thing that makes sense in the entire movie. Sorry.) Nicholas has even written a book that he dedicates to his father.
“Society has evolved long past the son’s understanding of mental health.”
Of course, this is a complete fantasy. Nicholas is dead, and no wish can bring him back. In the real world, Peter is robbed, while Beth comes to comfort him. The son is so completely devoted to his callousness and tone-deafness that the man who ignored his son’s endless pleas for help, even considering them a kind of personal insult, would think his son would one day dedicate a book to him. It’s a moment that completely strips Nicholas of any agency, making it all about Peter and his experience with his son’s mental illness. After all, Peter is the one who really had to suffer with a depressed son. It’s despicable.
The crux of the problem is that the film, like Kate and Peter, constantly ignores Nicholas. The son is much more interested in his parents – especially Peter and Beth – and how they constantly let their son down by not understanding him, ignoring him or blaming him for his own grief, without holding them accountable for this deeds. In one particularly heated moment (judging by the context it should be extremely dramatic with a capital D) Peter yells at Nicholas, “If you hurt yourself, it’s like you’re doing it to me.” Seriously. Perhaps this would have flown five or even ten years ago, but society evolved long ago The sonunderstanding of mental health.
The son could have been an effective demonstration of how callousness and a lack of understanding can lead to avoidable tragedies. Maybe it should have been. Instead, Florian Zeller forces us to sit through this plodding, grotesque, emotionally draining, brutal story. It’s a movie with such self-serving importance that it completely forgets about the main character, and he’s right in the title. The son is an embarrassment, an insult to those suffering from mental health issues, and a dramatically off-kilter story that relies on overwhelming musical cues, bland staging and wooden acting to give its comically outdated script some semblance of life. This is the worst movie and worst ending of 2022.