In their first film since 1999 Cannes Palme d’Or winner “Rosetta,” Belgium’s Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, explore the stunted life of another unhappy inhabitant of their home city, Liege. “The Son,” a claustrophobic and deadly serious tale about a blue-collar worker whose life has been ruined by tragedy and who unexpectedly finds himself confronting the cause of that tragedy, is a less successful work than its predecessor, however; the new film is both more indulgent and less emotionally involving, and critical response is likely to be wildly uneven, ranging from the very positive to the extremely negative. As a result, box office prospects for this extremely downbeat material are likely to be soft, with Euro territories more responsive.
The brothers’ protagonist this time is Olivier, a solitary, anguished individual who teaches carpentry and woodwork to young men. He lives alone and seems to have no interests or hobbies outside his work.
The early scenes create an unsettling mood. Olivier seems troubled when he glimpses a youth who he refuses, at first, to take into his training group; despite this rejection, Olivier seems unduly interested in the boy and, when his ex-wife Magali (Isabella Soupart) visits him to say that she’s pregnant and intends to marry her lover, he demands to know why she picked this particular day, of all days, to tell him she’s going to become a mother.
Olivier changes his mind and allows the youth, 16-year-old Francis (Morgan Marinne), to take part in his training program. One day he steals the keys from Francis’ pocket and lets himself into the apartment where the boy is staying, even lying on his bed.
The explanation for this mysterious behavior only begins to become clear at the 40-minute point. Five years earlier, we gradually discover, Olivier’s small son had been killed during a robbery; Francis, 11 at the time, was the killer, and he’s been in a juvenile detention center ever since.
Subsequent scenes between Olivier and the boy create a certain tension as the viewer wonders about the man’s intentions toward the kid who clearly has ruined his life.
But this isn’t a Hollywood revenge thriller and the climax is pretty banal. More troubling is the fact that the Dardennes fail to elicit any sympathy for their characters. Olivier has no social graces to speak of, and seems to be very slow and tentative about confronting Francis with their shared history, while Francis is an inarticulate, semi-literate kid who, though he seems genuine about learning a trade, isn’t all that remorseful about the crime he committed.
Part of the problem lies in the filmmakers’ decision to shoot in hand-held style and their penchant for keeping extremely close to their characters. D.p. Alain Marcoen scurries after the actors, keeping so uncomfortably close to them that for what seems like half the film the screen is dominated by the back of Olivier Gourmet’s neck. Even fans of this increasingly modish style may quail at this technique and many viewers will be yearning for a more distanced, more controlled visual approach.
As usual in the brothers’ work, Liege provides a grimy backdrop to the drama. No music is used to leaven the sounds — often panting — made by the characters.
While Gourmet is well cast as the bereaved and bitter father, the actor is allowed no possibility of bringing nuance, humor or true insight into the character. He’s simply a presence, and the same goes for Morgan Marinne’s surly Francis. Isabella Soupart registers quite strongly, but only has a couple of scenes.
Pic’s abrupt conclusion is likely to leave many viewers frustrated; just as the story seems to be starting, it ends with nothing solved.