Akira Kurosawa once said, “in a mad world, only the mad are sane.” Florian Zeller explores a fine line between the madness and desperation of those who are left in the wake of a tragic family event and those of us who unwittingly move on in his latest film, the complexly flawed The Son, opening widely in theaters this weekend.
The Son is a prequel to The Father and is based on Zeller’s play, Le Fils, adapted by Zeller and Academy Award-winning co-screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons). Hugh Jackman stars as Peter Miller, an overworked, stern man separated from his ex-wife, Kate, played by Laura Dern. Zen McGrath portrays their son, Nicholas Miller. Zeller makes it a point to clearly delineate the broken family; Peter lives with his new wife, Beth (Vanessa Kirby), and their infant child, defined coldly and clinically through a stark, post-modernistic styled apartment in Manhattan.
Kate has custody of Nicholas, and together they live in a Brooklyn brownstone full of warmth and life. Dern plays Kate with unexpected warmth, the effect of trying to provide a sense of normalcy to Nicholas and to us, the audience. Zeller spends time establishing these two abodes and separating modes of life; a new couple starting a family and the remnants of the former family.
Peter is aloof and is a tough negotiator, but he is as caring as he can be, and Jackman, for as stone-walled as he approaches the character of Peter, is outstanding. Nicholas has recently become disruptive, lying to Kate, who is on the verge of a breakdown as Nicholas demands to live with his father and Beth.
Zeller’s story bounces Nicholas between a set of emotions, clammed up at one point, open at another, confused and searching for help. McGrath has trouble swinging for the emotional fences, and although the outcome is unexpected, the story leads us to a frustratingly logical conclusion. Father and son are born of the same cloth. Zeller and Hampton have difficulty balancing the realities of the two sides of this particular coin, choosing to visually depict the emotional states because of the distinction between the environments.
Nicholas’ reaction and our reaction are the same: no matter where he is, emotionally. The same holds true for the audience. Despite the performances from Jackman and Dern, Zeller struggled to find an emotional center in The Son that devolves the story nearly completely. You feel for Nicholas’ reaction and empathize with Kate’s dilemma. Peter’s being so aloof, there’s nowhere for us to emotionally invest in the film other than the performances. And that’s not enough.
The script fits what Kurosawa was saying, genuinely defined in one moment.
Even within the descending chaos, The Son explores just how truly far the damage goes down the line when Peter decides to visit his estranged father, Anthony, played by Anthony Hopkins. Singularly the best sequence in the film, Zeller dots the screenplay and an intentional direction suggesting Peter’s troubled relationship with his father but doesn’t immediately expand on the thought. Yes, he’s distant with Kate, though warm; he is more loving and doting with Beth. Zeller flashes a moment early in the film when Peter starts to call his dad and doesn’t follow through. The face-to-face moment fully brings feelings of resentment, as examined earlier in the film when he finally confronts his father, bringing Peter dangerously close to his madness, managing to find some bit of courage for his son.
This decisive moment comes late in the script to change our feelings about what precedes it.
When the characters reveal their vulnerabilities, we care. The Son baits us into feeling that none morally exists. I was so morally outraged at the invulnerability hidden behind the intractability of the characters that I nearly walked out of the theater. Zeller asks so much of the audience that the emotional abuse we endure in the first two acts doesn’t justify the third that I had to see how the film concluded.
Nor do the exquisite performances from Jackman, Dern, and Hopkins.
Directed by Florian Zeller
Screenplay by Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton, based on Le Fils by Florian Zeller
Starring Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern, Vanessa Kirby, Zen McGrath, Anthony Hopkins
PG-13, 123 minutes, Sony Pictures Classics