Since Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s movie The Son played in theaters last year, I’ve thought about it more than any other movie in recent memory, which seems appropriate for a work relying so heavily on the viewer’s imagination.
Much of the film’s magic is in how its story unfolds, so the less said about the plot, the better. It starts simply. A man named Olivier teaches carpentry to teenage boys. He examines their work. He demonstrates proper technique. He’s quiet and meticulous. Maybe this is a training program for kids who’ve had some trouble in their lives, but the Dardennes are far too subtle to spell that out. Instead they follow Olivier as he helps the boys measure, cut, and hammer. The camera goes where he goes and sees what he sees.
One boy in particular draws his attention. The boy has just arrived at the school, but Olivier seems to know him or know who he is, and he seems unsure about what to do when the boy wants to join his carpentry class. As the story develops, without knowing exactly why, I began to fear violence. Olivier watches the boy with a curious stare that’s hard to read, and the workshop is filled with tools and heavy machines, a potentially disastrous place to be if something ugly lurks.
And that’s one of the keys to The Son’s power: it harnesses our own understanding—and fear—of human nature. An astounding number of movies, especially Hollywood movies, are driven by a mindless and unquestioned thirst for vengeance, but The Son looks squarely in the face of that thirst by observing complex human beings. It’s a clear-eyed style of filmmaking reminiscent of Kieslowski’s Decalogue or de Sica’s neo-realist classic The Bicycle Thief, movies that adopt a raw, bare-bones aesthetic to capture the difficult morality of everyday life, where people must submit not only to the consequences of their actions but sometimes to cruel coincidence as well.
In The Son, the boy and his teacher have histories that they bring with them to this point, but rather than explain all of that, the film merely observes what they’re doing now, plunging into what feels like a very real world, knowing these people are today the sum of all of their days. In a characteristic scene, the boy finds pleasure in measuring parking spaces with his new ruler while admiring Olivier’s ability to eyeball distances with remarkable accuracy. In another scene, a quick shot of the boy clutching his head after nearly causing an accident on a ladder says more about his mental state than 10,000 words on the subject. Simple scenes like these leave an after-image in the mind even while the movie is still going, hanging over the remainder like a canopy of leaves that layer on top of one another, giving detail to an initially barren picture. The blurry past slowly comes into focus, and yet the future remains unknown and has as much chance of being heartbreaking as it does triumphant.
And so the often-claustrophobic handheld camera looks over Olivier’s shoulder, literally and figuratively, as he struggles to find the right and necessary distance to keep between himself and his pupil. It’s harder to eyeball than the distance between parking spaces. He, the filmmakers and the viewers all have choices to make: what should he do, what might he do, and what’s the most that a society can reasonably expect of him, knowing that people seldom reach their ideals and carry anger in their hearts?
I wanted this movie to go on observing forever, to stay immersed in this world, but it ends, abruptly, immediately after each character chooses his path. It ends, but it lingers like only the best movies linger. It’s a profoundly simple, emotionally charged movie in which seldom a tear is shed, and I can’t recommend it more highly.