The limits of a mother’s love for her child are tried and tested in Ivan Kavanagh’s Son, a slickly dreadful exploration of how parents pass their literal demons onto their offspring. The film vibrates with the eeriest aspects of cults, curses and cannibalism, an undeniable boon when considering its languorous pacing and slight tendency to overextend when attempting to make its point.
After experiencing a traumatizing and tumultuous childhood of her own, Laura (Andi Matichak) strives to be a perfect mother to her son David (Luke David Blumm). Though it’s made clear that her teenage pregnancy was a vehemently unwanted one, Laura has taken parenthood in perfect stride—she’s always on time to pick David up from the babysitter’s, tells the obligatory story before bed and even lets him to fool around with videogames that might be just slightly age-inappropriate. As a young mother, her not-so-distant childhood makes Laura an ever-present and precocious parent. However, the skeletons in her closet seem to come to life one day. Laura becomes concerned that a cult that abused her in adolescence has resurfaced to take a severely ailing (and ominously hungry) David, so she flees with her child in order to protect them both. Soon, a state-wide manhunt is underway to find the pair, with doctors growing concerned that David’s medical condition is more dire than Laura might think.
Son never feels ham-fisted or trite when it comes to its theme of motherhood (a stark difference from last month’s maternal horror offering False Positive), instead electing to use the framework of motherhood as a means to invert (and challenge) conventional notions of child-rearing. Though Laura’s single-motherhood appears to be a vector for inviting unwanted entities to prey on her son (similar to The Exorcist and Child’s Play), this choice does not aid in perpetuating the idea that households without fathers are somehow more vulnerable to evil. In fact, David is not without a father; it’s his father’s nefarious identity that puts David and his mother in such a terrifying predicament in the first place. Laura is also not without her own shortcomings, especially when the line between what she believes to be true and what actually occurs is feverishly blurred.
For all of Son’s careful intention, certain aspects of the film’s slickness feel too safe and uninspired. The piercing violin score by Aza Hand effectively sends sharp tingles down the spine, yet its deployment within the film unfortunately strikes the viewer as predictable and formulaic. This is similarly the issue with the film’s editing and cinematographic choices, which all but essentially tick off boxes for hypothetically creating an “elevated” horror film. The jump cuts paired with shrieking strings and starkly exposed shots nearly neuter the film’s most shocking sequences. With the relative strength of Kavanagh’s script and direction, the filmmaker should have felt confident enough to venture into less rudimentary practices inherent in recent horror offerings.
Nevertheless, Son achieves visceral horror on multiple fronts, perhaps most distinctly through the engaging performance by Blumm (known previously for being the kid that gets tattooed by Pete Davidson in The King of Staten Island). Blumm’s ability to convey childlike naivete alongside a powerful primal hunger for flesh is an incredibly nuanced and agile performance from such a young actor, who expertly blends facets of The Babadook and The Omen. In a similar vein, the blood and guts consumed by the cannibalistic kid are effectively rendered, impressive practical effects which are both nauseating and captivating in their realism.
However, the film’s success on technical and artistic fronts only goes so far. During Son’s conclusion, the film is much too invested in parsing out the intricacies of David’s heritage and evolving monstrosity. This overemphasis comes off as over-indulgent, particularly when a more ambiguous ending would only have bolstered the intrinsic creepiness of Laura’s psychological breakdown. Likewise, it would have been keen of Kavanagh to end the film five minutes earlier, during a truly shocking scene that would have kept the film’s theme of trauma-induced violence intact as opposed to bringing Laura’s subliminal fears to life.
But more than a generic demon-spawn story, Son is an interrogation of how parents’ underlying issues stemming from childhood can very well be imparted on their children despite their best efforts. Though David’s paternal lineage is certainly a harrowing revelation, it’s clear that Laura’s active role in her son’s life is what ultimately shapes his distressing behavior. Yet in spite of this promising narrative foundation, the film’s gruesome effects and the compelling performance from Blumm, Son seriously suffers from assorted perils of predictability and protractedness.
Director: Ivan Kavanagh
Writer: Ivan Kavanagh
Stars: Andi Matichak, Emile Hirsch, Luke David Blumm, Cranston Johnson, Blaine Maye
Release Date: July 8, 2021 (Shudder)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste Magazine, Blood Knife Magazine and Filmmaker Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan