By Gary M. Kramer.
My Son purports to be a taut thriller about a desperate father’s search for his missing seven-year-old son. However, while this efficient French film includes a few tense moments, it also has more than its fair share of frustrating ones. Director Christian Carion, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Laure Irrmann, has come up with a basic premise and little else. It is not unreasonable to think as My Son plays out: Was this film made just so Liam Neeson could star in the inevitable American remake?
Julien (Guillaume Canet, who co-produced) gets a call that something has happened to his son, Mathys (Lino Papa), while he was away at a campsite. Julien rushes to the scene of the crime. His ex-wife, Marie (Mélanie Laurent), is already there and has been in contact with the police. There’s a glimmer of intrigue in these early moments, and the possibility of Mathys running away is floated. A meeting with a police Lieutenant Verrier (Mohamed Brikat) provides a little more context to the disappearance.
But then My Son goes off the rails. Julien’s meeting with Grégoire (Olivier de Benoist), Marie’s new partner, turns into an abusive encounter, with Julien beating Grégoire up, as he (incorrectly) suspects him of kidnapping. A lecture by Lieutenant Verrier and a fight with Marie follows. These episodes merely establish the fact that Julien is hotheaded, and just wants his son back.
Carion’s film becomes step and repeat as a result. The film alternates intense scenes with sequences of Julien driving. In one car scene, Julien gets a phone call from his new lover – she tells him they should not talk for a while – but the point of this exchange goes nowhere. It may be that it helps send Julien further over the edge, as he makes a series of bad decisions in the name of justice.
My Son has Julien breaking into a house following a lead he found looking at videos of Mathys online. There is some suspense generated by the confrontation that inevitably occurs, but Julien’s criminal behavior, while justified in his mind, feels extreme. Viewers will wonder repeatedly throughout the film: Why doesn’t he just call the cops? Carion never provides a reasonable answer.
Instead Julien gets another clue as to his son’s whereabouts, and en route to a big showdown, when he encounters a hunter in a truck on the backroads. He instantly suspects the man of nefarious doings, but the hunter is (proven) innocent. Moreover, he has an asthmatic attack, which is as manipulative as the film’s prominent score, which cudgels viewers, telling them how to feel.
The hunter scene is the only indication that Julien has compassion for anyone else (other than his son), but it is not enough. Canet is miscast here – he seems too smart to be acting purely on instinct and adrenaline. He fails to make his character convincing as someone who lets his emotions get the best of him, even as he cunningly flattens the tire of the heavy’s car or leads the bad guys off on a wild goose chase. There are nice touches, such as Julien’s heavy breathing as he stalks the compound where he believes his son is being held, but there are also contrived bits such as Julien easily overhearing a suspect’s phone call, or his ability to spy on the villains through a convenient part in a curtain.
My Son sets up a long, drawn-out finale that actually feels more slack than exciting. It culminates in a sequence that is slightly ironic, and segues into a curious coda, that, while appropriate, also seems unsatisfying.
Carion imbues his film with plenty of atmosphere. The drama is set during the winter in the snow-covered French countryside, and the sequences in the forest have a gritty feel to them. Even the driving scenes feature some glossy cinematography and filters. But despite these fine cinematic flourishes, they cannot disguise the fact that there is no there there. The reason the criminals want Julien’s son is never fully explained – and maybe it doesn’t have to be – but viewers may not become as deeply invested in saving Mathys to the extent Julien does. And given the sometimes violent extremes he takes to achieve his goal at any cost, Julien becomes hard to care about, too. My Son should be gripping, but it ends up just being lackluster.
Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2.