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‘The Son’ will make you squirm, for all the wrong reasons

Florian Zeller’s follow-up to ‘The Father’ has none of that shattering 2020 drama’s subtlety, visual elegance or thematic heft

Hugh Jackman, left, and Zen McGrath in “The Son.” (Rekha Garton/See-Saw Films/Sony Pictures Classics)
(1 star)

Admirers of “The Father,” Florian Zeller’s shattering 2020 drama about dementia and filial devotion, will no doubt be intrigued to learn that Zeller has made “The Son,” a movie that shares some (literal) DNA with its predecessor, but none of the first film’s subtlety, visual elegance or thematic heft. Mawkish, obvious and manipulative, “The Son” is, quite simply, a disappointment, from its pat setup to its equally false — and, quite frankly, cruel — resolution.

Hugh Jackman plays Peter, a middle-aged New York attorney who as “The Son” opens has embarked on a new life with his partner, Beth (Vanessa Kirby), and their new baby when his ex-wife, Kate (Laura Dern), shows up to let Peter know that Nicholas, their 17-year-old son, has been skipping school. Red flags abound in a story that turns out to be about adolescent depression, as well as adult self-deception, generational trauma and wobbly boundaries: Peter, a fixer by nature, is convinced he can get Nicholas back on track by virtue of good intentions and sheer force of will. What ensues is a slow-motion wreck that the audience can see coming down Madison Avenue, complete with a Chekhovian trope that’s as on the nose as it is breathtakingly offensive.

Indeed, “The Son” is so ham-handed, so hysterically pitched and manufactured, that’s it’s difficult to believe it emanated from the same hand that brought such skill to limning the shifting cognitive realities in “The Father.” Anthony Hopkins starred in that film as a man falling down a rabbit hole of confusion and temporal dislocation; here, he plays Peter’s father, whose aggression and insensitivity play like a burlesque of toxic masculinity. Jackman, for his part, brings intensity and focus to a role that calls for calibrated rising panic but also buttoned-up repression. (Bonus: Zeller has made sure to include at least one scene where we can see him dance.) And in just one glance, Dern clearly conveys the grief of a women who has lost not just her husband, but an entire future she had counted on. Sadly, Zen McGrath, as the suffering Nicholas, is given nothing to play outside petulance and moodiness. Unlike, say, “Beautiful Boy,” in which Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet played a father and son embroiled in a fight against addiction, “The Son” doesn’t plumb any surprising depths of mental illness. Instead, Zeller seems content to skim the most lurid surfaces of a subject that is far more complicated and nuanced than the stock beats we see here.

Nowhere is that truer than in “The Son’s” final act, a glib, cynical misdirect of the most melodramatic order. In one fell swoop, Zeller breaks faith not just with his characters, but with his viewers. What may be worse, few of them will believe a word of it.

PG-13. At area theaters. Contains mature thematic material involving suicide, and strong language. 123 minutes.

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