Thrillers are spectacular at honing in on our fears, dissecting them before our eyes and serving up a steaming plate of digestible trauma. They promise a scalpel-sharp edge that will slowly sink into our skin – all while being licked raw by the plot. The Son (original title: El Hijo) promises this experience tenfold, but never lets you race ahead.
The 2019 Argentine psychological thriller, directed by Sebastián Schindel [Anatomy of a Crime] and written by Leonel D’Agostino, is based on Guillermo Martínez’s 2013 novel A Protective Mother (original title: Una madre protectora). It tells the story of a middle-aged artist named Lorenzo (Joaquín Furriel) and his Norwegian wife, a biologist named Sigrid (Heidi Toini). Having lost the custody of his two daughters to his former partner, Lorenzo is as determined to have a child as his younger wife, quietly tolerating her eerie and troubling behaviour when their efforts turn fruitful. As gradually as Sigrid strips his home of its warmth, Lorenzo finds himself questioning his memory – and his mind. The fear of going mad mixes with his crippling suspicion of being cropped out of his infant son’s life. The combination results in a chilling escalation of events, spinning every element of Lorenzo’s life out of control.
The story creeps forward at a leisurely pace, at odds with the tension that is coiled tighter and tighter – leaving you unaware of when the final snap will come. The film utilises the same technique as Quentin Tarantino in 1994’s Pulp Fiction, when the crucial contents of the briefcase were revealed to everyone but the film’s audience. In The Son, as a choked scene comes to a crescendo, the camera shuns the source of the character’s horror – or completely loses consciousness. We are left scrambling around for some sense in the rubble, along with Lorenzo. This may make the entire experience bitterly immersive, granting us unwanted freedom to glue the fragments of its logic together. The lack of resolution may leave you with a sour aftertaste. After all, the tension has to be released somehow. But the film never promises to do so. It takes you on a teasing journey through muddled fear, presenting parenthood as the ever-morphing source of it. The muted cinematography plays with shades the same way Lorenzo does in his art. First, they turn dark and stodgy. Then, they are stripped bare. Beige. Much like Lorenzo’s control over his life. Perspectives and timelines shift, leaving us uneasy. Suspicious. Thrilled by the film’s representation of the lack of answers we experience in our own lives.