Movie Reviews

Movie Review: The Son – Can the American Culture Handles These Themes?

Written by  Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne
Directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne

For the first time in quite a long time, I am struggling with a review. To properly review and discuss issues in this movie is to give away the story, and that would be unfair to those who might see it. The less you know about the plot and the more you let it unfold before you at its own pace, the better the film actually is.

The Son is a French film with English subtitles. It is because of the cultural differences between the two countries that I ponder the greatest question that comes to me after seeing it. Could the film in its current state honestly work here? The answer to me is no. As a culture, I think the ending to us would be so shocking that we would walk away from it feeling less than fulfilled.

I don’t say this to bash our country. We are what we are, after all. After writing up a review of Crash, I checked out other reviews and happened upon the comment: The bad characters didn’t get what they deserved. And that is the mindset of our country. We want to see justice done in films; see the good guys win and the “bad guys” get it in the end. We like things wrapped up nice and tidy like that as it makes life simpler for all. To delve into life’s complexities that perhaps not everyone deserves what they “get” nor gets what they “deserve” is to shatter some people’s illusion of the order of the world.

The Son centers around the character of Olivier (portrayed by Olivier Gourmet). He is a man who teaches carpentry to troubled boys at a vocational learning center. He has a quiet intensity when we first see him. His rapport with the boys isn’t that he’s a joker who puts them at ease and almost acts like one of them, the way films often portray the “cool” teachers we assume students will identify better with. Instead, Olivier is short with the boys. He’s a man of few words, and those words usually involve the instruction of those he is trying to help.

As the story unfolds we learn why Olivier is there. He has given up his former life – whatever that was – to fill a void by teaching these boys and possibly having an impact on their lives. Whether he is actually getting that much-needed fulfillment is never explored, but it’s hinted that something is still missing as he seems to go through the motions, waiting for lightning to strike and for his life to have some purpose to it again.

There is little dialogue in The Son and that is good. it is driven by following Olivier around in the world he inhabits as he tries to get closure. And for most of us, it would seem that closure would involve justice; seemingly righting the wrong that we feel has occurred. We like to see fistfights and blood; seeing the hero walk away battered and bruised but having gotten retribution.

Directed by brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, who are well-known in their native country for the documentaries they have produced, The Son has the feel of a documentary. The camera follows Olivier around the way reality shows follow contestants, with the same jerky motions and odd angles. The effect is a film that is not smooth and slick but unnerving as I felt like a voyeur into a hellish point of Olivier’s private life. It had the feel of watching a car accident and recoiling in horror as I thought I knew what the outcome would be as events unfolded.

Yet I was taken by surprise once again at the end. The explosive tragedy that I’d been conditioned to expect by Hollywood was bypassed in favor of something deeper. For many, they will not accept the ending. It just is an unfathomable event to them.

Olivier Gourmet is marvelous in The Son. His role as a man who is searching for meaning in his life after that meaning was taken from him is marvelous. He doesn’t do so with long speeches decrying the unfairness of it all, but rather with a quiet intensity that’s just shy of being driven, until that pivotal moment when his life changes. He carries himself like many of us who put on a brave face to the rest of the world when we’re dying inside, and those feelings come through in the way he talks to the boys he’s teaching; in his mannerisms during everyday life; in the way, he faces several turning points. He easily shifts into a frantic, almost stalking mode when a situation presents itself and instead of walking away from a potentially dangerous and explosive situation, he seemingly embraces it. Gourmet makes both facets of the character believable, even down to the final outcome.

Morgan Marinne is Francis, the boy at the center of the upheaval in Olivier’s life. He is quiet, sullen, and youthful. He is in transition from boy to man and has the characteristics of both. Independent in many ways, he seems eager to learn and have a father figure in his life, something he has never had before.

I was less than impressed by Isabella Soupart who portrays Olivier’s ex-wife, Magali. The first time she is seen, she seems to have a ridiculous grin on her face, like a giddy teenager. Even with the news she is bringing to Olivier, I find it hard to believe she would be giddy around him about something like this, given their history together.

I had to think about it for several days as to how to approach reviewing the film. The less said about what happens is better. I could have really gone into some lengthy discussions on some of the film’s ideas, but instead, I leave it to viewers to discover this treasure for themselves. This is a film that’s nice to view by letting it reveal its surprises to you at its own pace, rather than knowing what will happen ahead of time.


” Interview with Dardenne brothers
” Interview with Olivier Gourmet
” Still Gallery
” Filmographies
” Trailer

2 replies »

  1. French films have a completely different philosophy – I’ve often thought that they present situations and conflicts and then never take them to resolution. It is more like real life in that there are many times when nothing is “wrapped up” and the film ends with out an American ending provided!