They say you can’t outrun the past...
...That it will catch up with you. And that, in the end, history will repeat itself. They also say that a mother will do anything to protect her child, and that there are no lengths she won’t go to when her baby is threatened. What happens then when a trauma so dark and vile rears its ugly head after years of repression and denial, poised to shatter a young woman who will stop at nothing to save the life of her eight-year-old son? That is the central tension in Ivan Kavanagh’s Son, a film filled with pain and anguish, disbelief and faith, and enough blood to clog every motel bathtub from here to Milwaukee.
WARNING: MENTIONS OF CHILD ABUSE AHEAD
Written and directed by Kavanagh (The Canal), Son opens with a battered and bruised Anna (Andi Matichak) fleeing a couple of sinister older men wearing nothing but a dirty nightgown. She’s pregnant, and at some point during her escape, manages to pull over in a stolen truck and give birth to a baby boy, all the while screaming “I don’t want you!” Flash forward eight years later, Anna, now going by Laura, and her son, David (Luke David Blumm) are living a happy, quiet life together in picture-perfect suburbia. That life begins to unravel one night when Laura discovers a mysterious group of people in her son’s bedroom, David unconscious and unclothed on the bed. Laura manages to summon the police and prevent further harm to her child, but the threat is far from over. As Laura begins to suspect she’s been found by members of the cult she escaped from all those years ago, David starts exhibiting increasingly strange behavior and suffering strange symptoms. Disregarding the advice of helpful detective Paul (Emile Hirsch) to let the doctors and the police handle everything, Laura takes David and flees, committing a series of unspeakable acts in order to keep her son alive, all as his sporadic psychotic fits and convulsions grow deadlier and deadlier.
At its core, Son is dealing with themes of trauma, abuse, and trust. Anna/Laura is the survivor of horrendous childhood sexual abuse at the hands of her father and others, that much is made clear, but what remains a question is whether or not the rape served as a larger part of a demonic ritual perpetuated by the pedophilic cult. As Laura learns as she attempts to retrace her past with the help of fellow survivor Jimmy (Blaine Maye), the cult may not have even existed. Laura’s memories could be false, a defense mechanism her mind concocted as a means of coping with one of the darkest, most horrific kinds of abuse imaginable. But if there was no cult, then who is harassing Laura and her son now? And what is the source of the strange affliction plaguing David and driving him to violent acts? Could it be that Laura herself is the source of the terror without even realizing it?
The film asks these questions of its characters and its audience, a genre exploration of the call to #BelieveWomen and the toll it takes on women to bear the burden of proof when they speak out about abuse. Laura is adamant that the cult exists. She knows what she saw and remembers what she felt, but since no one else has seen the cult, and David can’t remember anything, all the men around her dissuade her from believing these “fantasies,” each of them embodying a different type of toxic masculinity. Fragile Jimmy insists that Laura is misremembering, telling her that her own memories are fake, while condescending detective Steve (Cranston Johnson) dismisses Laura’s suspicions outright as nightmares and sleepwalking. His partner Paul is no better, a toxic white knight claiming to believe Laura but doing little to actually help her other than pressuring her to return home so he can play savior and solve everything with a logical explanation.
As the film progresses, the murkiness surrounding the cult begins to fade, and it all builds to a conclusion and a twist in the final scene that are predictable but satisfying. Credit is due to Matichak (Halloween) for bringing depth and truth to Anna/Laura, a demanding role that puts her through an absolute gauntlet of harrowing emotions and requires her presence in nearly every minute of the film. Hirsch (The Autopsy of Jane Doe) also delivers a solid supporting turn as the well-intentioned Paul, and relative newcomer Blumm (The King of Staten Island) waffles expertly between endearing second-grader and crazed demon-child as the story calls for it in what is also a very physical, taxing role.
Despite the relevant messaging and engaging performances, the film drags somewhat on its way to a foreseeable finale. The film seems interested in playing in certain gray areas but never commits to the ambiguity. There were also a few logistical missteps that took me out of the film, such as when Laura discovers the cult in David’s room, runs across the street to get her neighbor to call the police, then goes back to the house to pick up a weapon and rescue her son instead of just calling the police herself and/or immediately trying to save her son in the moment. Later on, the drastic decision Laura positions herself to take at the film’s climax also doesn’t feel quite earned, but the framework for how she gets there is consistent throughout the film. It just needed a bit more structure.
That said, Son is an otherwise potent and enjoyable social horror-thriller from a competent director working with a strong cast. It’s a bit paint-by-numbers but the resulting picture is pleasing to the eye and intriguing, particularly as it pertains to themes of lingering trauma, the human psyche, and what it means to be a woman speaking truth in a world controlled by men.
Son comes to VOD on March 5th from RLJE Films.
By Craig Ranallo