Content Warning: This piece includes mentions of depression and suicide.
Florian Zeller’s The Father, adapted from his own play, shows mental illness and disability from the inside out. Fracturing the film’s form and structure viscerally disorients us as we experience, alongside Anthony Hopkins as the aged parent, dementia. It received acclaim from audiences and the Academy, and despite its praises perhaps being a little oversung at the time, it remains commendable as an effective and inventive work of empathy. His follow-up, The Son, looks at mental illness from entirely outside of the sufferer. As a film about the ways entitled parents lose touch with their children, and therefore cannot comprehend the extent of their distress, it sounds on the surface like a worthy enough way of investigating serious issues. Parents often become detached and distant from their kids, not understanding the full weight of how they’ve affected them, and it’s become clear how severe the generational gulf of understanding and treating mental illness has become. But the resulting film places a vast difference between parent and child, with a script that sacrifices insight and perception, leaving its audience as far from the sufferer as the parents.
Peter (Hugh Jackman) is remarried to a younger woman (Vanessa Kirby), but his ex Kate (Laura Dern) arrives on his doorstep, panicked about the well-being of their teenaged son Nicholas (Zen McGrath). Over the course of a punishing two hours, the adults try to grapple with the enormity of their son’s depression, largely through feeling guilty about being bad parents, which—surprise, surprise—does not help their situation. Zeller is clearly more experienced as a writer than a director, but even his ability to extract the powerful (if stagey) performances we saw in The Father is missing here, as everyone just insists their lines upon each other with tones borrowed from shouty amateur theater.
For some of the actors, the fault lies with them. Jackman really, really wants you to take him seriously as an actor, but his charisma and presence is entirely out of place in what should be an intimate drama. Kirby and Dern are easier to forgive, although Zeller should have noticed the multiple times Dern’s breathless distress crosses over into Inland Empire territory. When it comes to the younger actor, Australian newcomer McGrath is completely disserved by Zeller’s script and direction; his dialogue is composed of inert clichés and tone deaf poeticisms as he tries to express his illness. It’s alright for teenage characters to not be able to articulate what they’re going through—in fact, it’s the norm—but Zeller presents Nicholas’ observations as profound or insightful, meaning they come across insincere. Thanks to his character on the page and the clumsy direction, McGrath feels one-note, further distancing the audience from fully empathizing with Nicholas’ inner world.
Together with the other winner of his Best Adapted Screenplay, Christopher Hampton, Zeller has sanded down all the confrontational, raw emotions of The Father to present something that, along with a passive, floaty camera style, reveals and compounds his worst creative tendencies. Next, Zeller intends on completing his trilogy with The Mother (I assumed it would be titled The Holy Spirit, which speaks volumes about my upbringing). Hopefully that upcoming film will have something better to say about motherhood than The Son has to say about parenthood, content with its facile understanding of the upsetting dynamics between people who can’t understand each other’s interiority.
None of The Son’s ideas indicate deep empathy, none of its drama feels grounded or nuanced, and none of its characters feel like real people. The Son’s resolution will leave you stunned—not because of the intended emotional impact, but because it reveals the full extent of the film’s manipulation. In it, mentally ill people are colored as ciphers, unintelligible and unreachable objects whose depression is treated like a mystery box to be solved.
I understand that The Son is about rich people acting without empathy. But it also intends for us to care about them, for us to be affected by their tragedy, and most of all for us to recognize them as living, breathing people. I have attempted suicide in my life, I have struggled with intense, extended bouts of suicidal ideation. I did not see myself, my pain, or the similar testimonies my friends have entrusted in me projected onto that screen. In fact, it felt like all The Son was interested in was my pain, without a human being attached to it. It poked and squinted at it. “How awful,” it says. “If only something could have been done.” You’ll likely think the same about Zeller’s tremendous disappointment.
Director: Florian Zeller
Writer: Florian Zeller, Christopher Hampton
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern, Vanessa Kirby, Zen McGrath, Hugh Quarshie, Anthony Hopkins
Release Date: November 25, 2022
Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.