It is difficult to discuss The Son (New Yorker), the unnerving Belgian drama by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, without alluding to the moment when the movie snaps into focus and those of us who'd been semidrowsing for half an hour suddenly sat upright, gasped, and thereafter found our eyes locked to the screen.
Until that instant, The Son had struck me as a peculiar exercise in sensory deprivation. For much of its running time, the hand-held camera is behind the head (with an especially good view of a blob of skin under the right ear) of a closed-up carpentry instructor called Olivier (Olivier Gourmet)—balding, pasty, and ordinary-looking, with thick-lensed glasses that further fog the windows to his soul. Olivier works at some sort of vocational training center for wayward teenagers, but the Dardennes don't seem especially concerned about giving us our bearings. For some reason, their protagonist takes an interest in a newly arrived teenager named Francis (Morgan Marinne), who's even more dull-faced and impassive than Olivier. As the older man watches the boy or instructs him in the properties of various woods, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of drama going on. Also, my neck hurt from all the camera's jitters and swoops.
If you've seen the Dardennes' previous U.S. art-house successes, La Promesse (1996) and Rosetta (1999), you might suspect that the point will be to show how capitalism can be fundamentally at odds with human decency—how even good people can be driven to victimize others by the fear of what they have being taken away. (That sounds programmatic, but the Dardennes are more interested in simulating believable workplace ecosystems than in spelling out their political agenda.) As it turns out, though, The Son is the same sort of temporal exercise but to a different end. If, once again, we follow a blank protagonist through a series of workplace rituals, this time those rituals haven't been thrust upon that protagonist: They've been embraced to keep something else at bay.
To return to that revelatory instant I mentioned above: It emerges, through a series of tense, awkward exchanges with Olivier's ex-wife, Magali (Isabella Soupart), that the boy Francis is more than a stranger: Five years earlier he killed Olivier and Magali's only son and has just been released from a prison for youthful offenders. And in that moment we understand both why Olivier is so withdrawn and why he can't take his eyes off the boy. What's more difficult to grasp—for the audience and for the horrified ex-wife—is why Olivier chooses to cope with Francis' presence by effectively taking him on as an apprentice.
The kid is backward. He can't seem to find his way around the city or even to hold a proper conversation. He has no friends. His mother, we learn, has a boyfriend who wants no part of him, and his father's whereabouts are unknown. As we stare at Francis through Olivier's eyes (or, rather, from behind his head), we slowly begin to sense the attraction. Robbed of a son, Olivier feels the sort of connection to this helpless boy that he hasn't had in years. He can give Francis advice, show off his own skills as a carpenter, feel as if he's necessary. The boy—who has no idea who Olivier is—is both the son's killer and a phantom replacement.
This is just my musing—none of it is articulated in The Son. Not much is articulated: The dialogue in the movie might fill only two or three pages. The point is that Olivier's face, which had seemed so uninteresting and unreadable early on, comes to seem momentous: By the end of the film, we can read every twitch, every faraway look, every movement of those blubbery, childlike lips.
The Dardennes are very precise about what they're doing. Their press notes contain a series of diary entries from the shoot, in which they describe the body of Olivier as being "in permanent disequilibrium." One entry: "The corners of walls, staircases, spirals, hallways. Breaking straight lines. Walk forward/walk backward. Movements of hesitation. Labyrinth. Maybe in Olivier's head." Definitely in Olivier's head. The Son is an experiment, not unlike Paul Thomas Anderson's in last year's Punch-Drunk Love, to use the power of cinema to sink you deep into a tormented character's mind. But where Anderson uses color, abstract montage, and alternately percussive and limpid music, the Dardennes' work is distinguished by the absence of those things. The movie is a peculiar exercise in sensory deprivation—but it's one that heightens the senses you have left.
By the climax, we can hardly breathe. Will Olivier confront the boy? Will he become his guardian, or will he kill him? Will this be a vigilante movie or its opposite? The outcome is less important than our utter and complete empathy with this man. As we await what he does, we breathe with him, in and out. This is an astonishing movie.