When the Dardenne Brothers’ The Son appeared in 2003, those critics who reviewed it ran out of superlatives. Roger Ebert found it “assured and flawless.” Andrew Sarris couldn’t help “being stirred by the wildly melodramatic climax” and the “thunderously quiescent Zen Buddhist conclusion.” I understand where they’re coming from, even while thinking enthused hyperbole has kicked in.
I can tell that this is a deeply felt work, and that the message contained in its simple (albeit contrived) story is a good one. However, it’s a type of film I simply don’t like, and it didn’t involve me emotionally for an instant. At bottom, it’s a surrogate father-son story. The difference is that the surrogate son in question is also the killer of the father’s real son. Now that’s interesting, and it could have taken many paths as a story. The path chosen is a stripped-down one, which is why the word “restraint” appears in most of the reviews.
There’s no music, not much dialogue (and what there is is mundane), a deliberately bland video look, and not much happens. The film is largely told over-the-shoulder of the father character (we become uncomfortably intimate with the back of his right ear) to give the impression we’re following him. The Dardennes set things up to go one way, then take the opposite direction. That’s clever at first, but predictable long before the film’s “Zen Buddhist conclusion.” But bear in mind — I’m in the minority on this one.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke