Editor’s Note: The following contains The Son spoilers and mentioned of suicide.
There isn’t a lot that connects Florian Zeller‘s dark domestic drama The Son to the 1993 movie adaptation of The Beverly Hillbillies. However, watching The Son, I was reminded of a quote from Roger Ebert’s review of The Beverly Hillbillies: “When directors make a wonderful movie, you look forward to their next one with a special anticipation, thinking maybe they’ve got the secret. If it turns out they don’t, you feel almost betrayed.” Ebert was talking about director Penelope Spheeris underwhelming with her follow-up to Wayne’s World, but he might as well have been talking about Florian Zeller following The Father with The Son.
While both of Zeller’s features (each adapted from a play he’d previously written) tackle how somebody’s deep psychological problems impact their family, only The Father explores the topic with grace. The Son’s endless struggles to tackle this subject matter are only highlighted when comparing it to Zeller’s prior Oscar-winning directorial effort.
‘The Father’s Visuals Flourished While ‘The Son’s Fell Short
One of the many ingenious touches in The Father was how it used visuals to explore the dementia-impacted headspace of protagonist Anthony (Anthony Hopkins). As the movie goes on, the flat he calls home is constantly changing in subtle but noticeable ways. Our homes are the places we look to for security, a location we can collapse into when the outside world has become unbelievably unbearable. Throughout The Father, Zeller, and cinematographer Ben Smithard warped this sense of security by making the flat Anthony lived in a fluid domicile that could change from one scene to the next. In the process, they instilled an uneasy atmosphere into the feature while finding such a visually vivid method of placing audiences into the psyche of Anthony.
The Son is much more standard in its visuals, despite Smithard returning to collaborate with Zeller once again. The behind-the-scenes band from The Father may be back again, but the visual ingenuity of that earlier Zeller directorial effort is absent. The universe of The Son is rendered in a flat style that could belong to any filmmaker, there aren’t any distinctive traits in the camerawork or production design that accentuate or lend insight into the head of Nicholas Miller (Zen McGrath). This fellow is a teenager suffering from undiagnosed depression. Fraught interactions between this kid and his divorced parents, Peter (Hugh Jackman) and Kate Miller (Laura Dern) are similarly stagnant in how they’re presented to the audience.
There’s little variation in the camerawork or other critical visual details like the editing by Yorgos Lamprinos (another figure returning from The Father) between highly intense arguments between father and son or just nonchalant chit-chats between these family members. Only a handful of wide shots of Nicholas walking around or sitting in various parts of New York City suggest any level of insight into his mind. Here, the vastness of the frame suggests that Nicholas is drastically dwarfed by his psychological issues. It’s not the most original way of communicating somebody’s despair, but at least it’s a departure from The Son’s static visual norms. Despite having a more limited number of locations at its disposal, The Father flourished in terms of imagery whereas The Son is downright lifeless at times in its camerawork. Then again, there’s only so much people like Smithard or Lamprinos could do given the biggest problem with The Son: the script.
‘The Father’ & ‘The Son’ Take Different Storytelling Approaches
There’s no underselling how important the central perspective of The Father is to making that movie work like it does. Telling that story through the eyes of Anthony allows us to get closer to what it’s like to live with dementia, to have your grasp on reality constantly shift without even a hint of warning. It’s a compelling decision that also heightens how empathetic Zeller’s screenplay is to Anthony. This character can be course or rude, but by ensuring that the whole movie is told through his point-of-view, we’re placed in his shoes rather than watching his anguish from afar. It’s impossible not to get wrapped up in his plight as a result.
By contrast, The Son is told through the eyes of Peter and Kate Miller rather than the character suffering from some kind of internal condition, in this case, their son’s depression. This single choice already makes The Son hit with far less impact than The Father since Nicholas Miller is kept at such an arm’s length from the audience. Depression makes people isolated, sure, but so does dementia and The Father found countless inventive ways of bringing the audience closer to Anthony. Because the narrative calls for Peter to be befuddled by what’s happening to the son he once played with so happily on the beach, The Son makes Nicholas a muddled, vaguely defined human being.
Instead of lending nuance and depth to the everyday experiences of living with depression, Nicholas comes off as a character whose existence is solely defined by causing strife for his parents. Surely the more interesting story would be in deeply exploring the life of a teen whose psychology makes him feel like the world’s crumbling around him. Alas, The Son’s central narrative focus, unlike The Father, isn’t on a person grappling with a psychological issue. It instead shifts the narrative over to characters who (as far as the audience knows) don’t have any sort of internal issues to deal with. The story of Nicholas is only worth telling because of how it made his dad feel.
This isn’t to minimize the perspective of parents of teenagers suffering from depression, but this is a perspective we’ve seen before in movies. A lot. The de facto route for mainstream movies to take when it comes to characters with psychological disorders or mental health conditions is to push them into the background so that “normal” protagonists can be in the limelight (see: Rain Man, Music). It’s an all too familiar one that immediately curbs The Son’s ability to create a singular personality for itself. It’s also an approach that lacks the innovation and uniqueness of The Father’s boldness to put dementia-stricken characters in the role of protagonist.
The Son’s derivative narrative elements, especially compared to The Father, are apparent in its DNA, but they reach their apex during this film’s climax.
In Comparison and on Its Own, ‘The Son’s Ending Is Frustrating
The Father does not end with death. Though Anthony is an elderly man, Zeller opts to not end The Father with his demise. Instead, we finally see this character removed from the flat he holds so dear to his heart. Now, he’s in a nursing home, overwhelmed with emotions he can barely process. A nurse comes over, sits next to Anthony, and comforts him while gently telling him the brutal but honest truth: he won’t remember this in a few minutes. His emotional pain is as fleeting as his grasp on reality. It’s not a happy ending, instead serving as a reflection of how psychological conditions like dementia can be such long-term experiences. Death would be too simple of an ending. The Father, instead, concludes with a grim reminder to the audience that Anthony will be grappling with his condition long after the credits finish rolling.
Such a unique and devastating ending is, unfortunately, not used as a guiding light for The Son to pursue an equally distinctive conclusion. Instead, Nicholas kills himself off-screen with a shotgun that his grandfather gave his dad as a present years earlier (a detail established in incredibly clumsy expository dialogue earlier in the movie). Afterward, a ham-fisted sequence plays out where Peter imagines Nicholas visiting himself as an adult, with his son fulfilling his dreams of being a writer by publishing a novel entitled Death Can Wait. What’s supposed to be quietly crushing is instead unintentionally humorous thanks to how utterly predictable and derivative this sequence is.
Medical data suggests that a large assortment of people who commit suicide also suffer depression, a reflection of how badly America fails people with mental health issues. There’s nothing innately wrong with Florian Zeller trying to explore this reality within The Son, it’s just that he doesn’t do such exploration interestingly. Nicholas has been so thinly developed up to this point that his suicide just comes off as an abrupt way to inject more drama into the script rather than an organic development for the character. It’s also impossible to forget how many older features have also concluded storylines involving characters with depression with suicide, making this narrative detour also thoroughly predictable.
The Son’s ending would be incredibly miscalculated in any context (just that book title alone), but it’s especially frustrating when compared to The Father’s ending, which subverted expectations on how a movie involving an elderly man struggling with dementia would end. The Father was a visually involving and narratively ingenious way of using cinematic tools to reflect living with an overwhelming psychological condition. The Son, meanwhile, is just another motion picture that can only conceive of depression as a way to generate melodramatic situations for people who aren’t suffering from depression. No wonder Florian Zeller’s spiritual follow-up to The Father echoes the feelings Roger Ebert had when he walked out of his screening of The Beverly Hillbillies.
If you or a loved one is struggling with suicidal impulses, know there is always help and resources available for you, including the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255)