Genre films, particularly thrillers, require a certain formula—like a baker who must follow a recipe. One can be infinitely creative with the ingredients in that recipe, but certain things have to be there to make bread. Thrillers need peril, angst, and a violent climax. With My Son, French filmmaker Christian Carion tries to experiment with the recipe, making a genre film that doesn’t always take the expected paths.
The story, wisely, doesn’t waste any time getting started. It opens with Julien (Guillaume Canet) hearing from his ex-wife that their son Mathys has disappeared from camp, probably in a kidnapping. Events proceed according to formula: absent father Julien feels anguish and guilt for not being there for his son; parents fret over how their split might be to blame; police prove to be completely ineffectual; and desperate father finally takes matters into his own hands.
From the outset, director Carion injects an almost insouciant subtlety and quietness to his pacing, a counterintuitive move in contrast to the habit of most American directors, who ratchet up the intensity from the word go. Carion’s restraint pays off, so that when a violent sequence hits, the impact is all the more shocking.
Another way Carion throws us off is to make it hard for us to root for Julien. Yes, we sympathize with his anguish, but it’s made clear early on that his judgment is questionable—he makes serious mistakes more than once. We doubt whether Julien’s attempt to take control of the situation is actually wise.
Carion also experimented with the filmmaking process, keeping his star almost completely in the dark about the movie’s plot. The film was shot in sequence over a quick six days. Canet, onscreen for virtually every minute, was experiencing events, struggling with his emotions, and discovering clues in real time, just as his character was. The intent was obviously to give Canet’s performance greater authenticity and spontaneity, and there are indeed spots where he gives an amazingly intense performance.
But at about the midpoint of the film, Carion missteps. We get a revelation out of the blue about Julien’s job, which turns into a deus ex machina development, clearly intended to explain the skills Julien deploys.
Enter the genre
Of course, once this happens, every genre formula kicks in, and the film’s third act becomes eminently predictable as we move inexorably toward the final violent payoff. It’s a big letdown.
One final cultural point I noted, contrasting My Son with similar American films: At no point in the film did Julien ever wield a gun, though several of the bad guys did. Can you imagine an American thriller where the macho lead doesn’t brandish a gun?
In the end, props must go to Carion for trying to mix up the thriller recipe, even though the conventions of the genre ultimately defeated him. It’s hard to say what he could have cooked up if successful, but in the final analysis, all we got was a loaf of movie Wonderbread.
What, When, Where
My Son. Directed by Christian Carion. Opens in Philadelphia at Ritz at the Bourse on May 24, 2019. For showtimes, click here.