It’s hard to believe that we are well over a decade into a post-Taken world, in which any remotely beefy male celebrity (and Sean Penn) have attempted to tap into our cultural appetite for justified vengeance, usually involving a family member in peril. Almost none of them have had any success outside of the John Wick trilogy, which subverts this genre much more than it draws from it, and almost all of them have become joke fodder at some point. Even the ladies have attempted to get in on this trend (Peppermint, Colombiana) to less than stellar returns. Yet it’s a well that we keep dipping into in the hopes of striking oil once again.
Why do we keep rolling the dice on this one when the numbers don’t seem to favor doing so? Easy: vengeance is cathartic, but also dangerous. In film, it can be used to make for compelling narrative thrust, but in real life it’s a remarkably shitty policy. None of us would have the resolve (or luck) of Edmond Dantès in The Count of Monte Cristo, but my god is it a joy to watch his multifaceted plan fall into place. Revenge is a dish best served in fiction, and one of the biggest strengths of My Son (Mon garçon) is the way it steadfastly refuses to give in to this catharsis while still operating within the shell of a Liam Neeson-esque tale of kidnapping, revenge, and the application of unconventional skills to get it all done.
French favorite Guillaume Canet plays Julien Perrin, a quietly troubled divorcee whose child recently disappeared from a scouting trip. His ex-wife Marie (an excellent Mélanie Laurent) and her new partner (Olivier de Benoist) don’t quite know where to begin in finding the missing child, but to say that the relationship between the three adults is strained would be an incredible understatement. Part of the fun of My Son is the way in which these strained relationships, and the histories of each character, are presented to the viewer. There isn’t a moment which specifically describes why Julien and Marie are separated, nor is there any explicit telling of why Julien has the ability to take matters into his own hands outside of the law.
All of these tidbits of detail are given to us through character interaction, and made tangible via the performances. Much like the similarly enigmatic You Were Never Really Here, it’s up to the audience to mine out the “whys” and the “hows”of what’s happening. It’s also up to us to imagine the violence, as not a lick of it occurs on screen. Whereas Taken is solely about the cathartic joy of watching bad people get what’s coming to them, My Son is much more concerned with how this ostensibly bloody path to justice affects those who walk it — and those find themselves innocently drawn into the calamity.
Both Canet and Laurent tap into the reality of their situation with aplomb. The script, written by Laure Irman and director Christian Carion, doesn’t allow for exposition, leaving our actors adrift amongst a sea of necessary information which they must convey intangibly. They succeed on all fronts.
My Son will perhaps be damaged by releasing at the tail end of a sub-subgenre’s heyday, but those who don’t let it pass by will find its purposeful subversions to be more than enough reason to dive into its mystery.
My Son was released nationwide May 10, 2019, and opens in Philadelphia May 24 at Ritz at the Bourse.