Director: Ivan Kavanagh
Notable Cast: Andi Matichak, Luke David Blumm, Emile Hirsch
It was repeated throughout my childhood, a phrase that never left me. Never judge a book by its cover. Yet, it’s often an approach that any adult regularly uses on a day-to-day basis. In the bombardment of information received from the marketing teams in film, it is hard not to judge a film by its cover. In this case, judge a film by its title. Son is not necessarily the most riveting title and certainly doesn’t invoke the horror element at the core of the film. Still, don’t be me. Don’t skip out on the film thinking it is some Redbox exclusive indie low budget flick. Son is a haunting and atmospheric trip through the stark fears of motherhood that reels into some jackknife turns to deliver its horrors.
Coming from director Ivan Kavanagh, director of the scrumptiously unnerving ghost film The Canal from a handful of years ago and the often overlooked western Never Grow Old, Son is taking heavy handed inspiration from classic horror like Rosemary’s Baby and asks the question - what happens after the fact?
A young mother, after delivering a painful looking childbirth in a car while on the run from unseen pursuers in a cold open flashback that is a wildly intense way to open a film, is happily raising her son and making the most of her life. She is a teacher, she’s taking night classes, and she lives in a safe and neighborly area - living a dream. That is until one night when she steps into her son’s room and sees it full of unknown people surrounding him on his bed. This is the inherent mystery of what Kavanagh and company are selling and it’s a classic gaslighting scenario of so many psychological thrillers. It is well done, anchored by an incredible dual performance by Matichak and Luke David Blumm (as her son), and visually it's steeped in a density of things unsaid and unseen lurking behind what’s being said and shown on screen. It’s presented in a classic fashion that establishes the path and paints the expectations for its audience.
Naturally, Son says ‘fuck that’ and decides to turn a different direction. The second act whips towards a new direction, pushing towards a more supernatural element and digs into the questions of how far a mother will go to save their child. The third act doubles down on the gory terrors behind the opening moments of the first act. To reveal too much of where the film careens would be blasphemous, but, rest assured, it is relatively shocking compared to what was established initially and the turn towards a more monstrous tone is undeniably fascinating.
However, it’s the execution of Son that makes it work as impressively as it does, relying heavily on the fluidity of its storytelling and the strength of its key performances - which includes another incredible secondary casting turn by Emile Hirsch as the good cop Paul who believes in the mother, Laura. Director Ivan Kavanagh imbues the film with a sense of suffocating dread that gives way to Laura’s own frenetic fears as she desperately searches for answers. He’s not afraid to balance the realism of its motherly based fears with a surrealistic touch, extending the initial gaslighting of the film towards a fantastical slant that leaves its audience asking more questions than the film is willing to answer. Even as final shifts of the plot are revealed in the third act, there is a sense that not everything is as it seems and leaves that lingering sense of doubt with its audience well after the terrifying final moment.
Truly, the one oddity about Son that felt out of place was the choices with the sound design. Watching the film, I kept having to fiddle with the volume on my TV - blasting the volume up to hear the whispering dialogue of the characters, only to be deafened by the bombastic musical stings or a visceral sound effect. At first, I thought it was just the version of the film that I was streaming or perhaps my TV was exacerbating the issue but after finishing the film and doing a bit of research it’s the design of the film. It’s an odd approach that does occasionally detract from the overall experience, but not one that derails the film on the whole.
All in all, don’t let the generic title of Son dissuade a viewing. Kavanagh’s latest is a terrifying cinematic treat, gorged in beautiful visuals, dense atmosphere, and a slithering narrative that often plays against the expectations it sets forth from the beginning. The performances are impressive, the effects are gag worthy (in the best of ways), and the finale is one that hits its viewer viciously in the ribs. In a year of some surprisingly solid horror, don’t let Son slip by.