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The sins of ‘The Son’

Rather than investigate teen depression in a meaningful way, writer-director Florian Zeller’s adaptation of his play manipulates the viewer

Hugh Jackman, left, and Zen McGrath in a scene from "The Son."Rekha Garton/Sony Pictures Classics via AP

After the Oscar-winning adaptation of his play “The Father,” writer-director Florian Zeller is back with a re-envisioning of another one of his stage works, “The Son.” Unlike his prior film, a powerful and empathetic look at dementia, this one callously wrings misery out of mental illness. The result is a disappointing melodrama with a twist ending that’s as predictable as it is egregious.

“The Son” is so concerned with trying to get an emotional rise out of the audience, to choke us with its pathos, that it fails to create believable three-dimensional characters. Rather than investigate depression in a meaningful way, the script by Zeller and Christopher Hampton shamelessly flaunts the threat of suicide for two hours. There are numerous cuts to a spinning washing machine, a weird thing to focus on until you remember that there’s a hunting rifle hidden behind it. The theory of Chekhov’s gun has never been more cynically employed.

Like “The Father,” “The Son” often takes the viewpoint of its titular character. However, here the son in question isn’t Nicholas (Zen McGrath), a 17-year-old in crisis, but his father, Peter (Hugh Jackman), a workaholic lawyer who left Nicholas’s mother, Kate (Laura Dern), for the much younger Beth (Vanessa Kirby). Zeller misses the opportunity to put the audience in Nicholas’s shoes. The film relentlessly torments him, so that may be a blessing in disguise.


Hugh Jackman in a scene from "The Son."Jessica Kourkounis/Sony Pictures Classics via AP

Instead, we have to deal with Peter, who is so delusional and naïve you’ll want to pull out your hair in frustration. Just in case it’s not obvious that the title refers to him, Zeller gives us a scene between Peter and his nameless father, played by Anthony Hopkins, who’s as good in the role as he is brutal, verbally eviscerating his 50-year-old son. He states he’s not impressed with Peter’s obsessive desire to be a better parent than he was. As for the psychological trauma he inflicted on Peter, he profanely tells him to get over it.


Peter repeatedly delivers a similar message to his kid. Nicholas comes to live with Peter in the hopes that the change of address will offer him some comfort. Yet the film comes perilously close to implying that a parent’s life would be better if they could ditch the kids who need therapy. The movie’s only moments of ease are when Nicholas is not present. Even worse, every scene between father and son ends with Peter lashing out, ignoring the elephant in the room — his son’s depression.

For example, when Peter finds out that Nicholas has been self-harming, he says, “I expressly forbid it!” before adding that when Nicholas cuts himself, he’s hurting his father. I find it impossible to believe that these well-to-do people living in a posh home in New York City in 2022 would be so damn clueless. This movie feels horribly dated, as if it were discovered in a time capsule sealed in an era when we were less informed about depression.

Neither Jackman nor McGrath can make Zeller’s stilted, stagy dialogue work. McGrath is especially bad, but I can’t blame the actor. I blame the director. Nicholas is a prop: McGrath is either trying in vain to squeeze tears from his eyes, yelling out speeches that wouldn’t pass muster on an afterschool special, or staring creepily at the camera. He also asks Beth inappropriate questions while staring at her. So, when Beth calls Nicholas a weirdo and says she doesn’t want him baby-sitting his infant brother (which, of course, Nicholas overhears), the message is cruel, yet understandable.


Kirby emerges unscathed here, but the normally reliable Dern gives a rare bad performance, and Jackman just seems lost, as if he can’t believe what his character is doing. Hugh Quarshie shines as a doctor in a brief scene where he tries to convince Peter and Kate that their son is in danger; it’s the one honest moment in “The Son.”

And then there’s that hideous twist ending, which I won’t reveal. If I did, you’d listen to me and avoid “The Son” at all costs. Especially if you have familiarity with its subject matter.


Directed by Florian Zeller. Written by Christopher Hampton and Zeller, based on his play “The Son.” Starring Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern, Vanessa Kirby, Zen McGrath, Hugh Quarshie, Anthony Hopkins. 123 minutes. At AMC Boston Common, Landmark Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner, Dedham Community Theatre, and suburbs. PG-13 (F-bombs, topic of suicide)

Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.