By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Andi Matichak, Emile Hirsch and Luke David Blumm
Written and directed by Ivan Kavanagh
Overseas filmmakers often bring an outsider’s point of view to U.S.-shot projects that’s advantageous in presenting the darker corners and corridors of America, and so it certainly is in Irish writer/director Ivan Kavanagh’s SON. After conjuring up eerie local color in his previous THE CANAL, he posits his new movie’s Mississippi setting as a relentlessly bleak and threatening place, albeit leavened by the genuine sympathy he elicits for his central character.
We first meet Laura (Andi Matichak) filthy, barefoot and desperate in a diner on a stormy night, clearly fleeing from someone or someones, before she goes through one seriously harrowing night. Cut to eight years later, and we rejoin her at a much more stable point in her life, as the loving mother of preteen David (Luke David Blumm) and a teacher of even younger kids. She also takes a class for parents of children with PTSD, hinting at her and David’s past and unreconciled trauma; Laura’s care for her son feels palpable, and there’s a strong, naturalistic chemistry between the two that gets us feeling for them early on. Matichak brings great empathy to a more mature role than she had in David Gordon Green’s HALLOWEEN, though she does have a Jamie Lee Curtis moment in SON’s opening act, right after a great scary bit.
That jolt is just the beginning of events that will push Laura’s love for her son to the limit. David becomes horribly sick with an illness that doctors aren’t able to diagnose, and Laura becomes compelled to steal him out of the hospital on go on the run. SON then becomes a combination horror film and road movie that sends Laura and David through a stark Mississippi landscape rife with skeevy motels and deteriorating buildings, with big kudos due to John Leslie’s degraded production design and the hauntingly expressive use of light and shadow in Piers McGrail’s cinematography. McGrail, who also shot THE CANAL as well as THE CURED, WITHOUT NAME and LET US PREY, and Kavanagh evoke exterior landscapes and spare, barely populated interiors where nowhere feels safe, and anything awful can happen at any time.
A number of awful things do happen in SON, particularly to David, which will likely make this a tough sit for some parents. (A scene of the surgically masked Laura at her child’s bedside carries particularly resonant if unintentional associations.) Yet his suffering doesn’t feel gratuitous, as the film is always sympathetically attuned to David (given a remarkable performance by young Blumm) and Laura’s devotion to making him well and protecting him. She commits awful acts of her own in service of her son, yet Kavanagh and Matichak keep us on her side. It’s what she does after some of them that casts suspicion on her motives and mental state, as the central question of SON becomes not just whether Laura will be able to save her child’s life, but how much of what is threatening him might only exist in her mind.
Serving as an audience surrogate maintaining compassion for Laura even as her behavior worsens is Detective Paul Tate (Emile Hirsch), who accepts her stories from the beginning–a nice change from the typical dubious investigator. The manhunt undertaken for Laura does lead to some niggling plausibility issues–after she takes David from the hospital, the cops apparently don’t think to check her own house, and she’s able to avoid detection and capture pretty easily thereafter. That’s only a minor distraction, though, in a movie that otherwise keeps us tense (composer/sound designer Aza Hand’s shivery soundscapes are another major asset), guessing and most of all concerned for Laura on her odyssey through a very bloody heartland.