“My Son” is a gimmick in search of a movie. Co-writer/director Christian Carion (“Joyeux Noel”) adapts his own 2017 French film of the same name, which was unexpectedly dropped to Peacock after forgoing the theatrical or VOD route (it will also be on The Roku Channel in December, making this deal even stranger). Coming seemingly out of nowhere, the thriller boasts two undeniably talented stars, one of whom was reportedly not given a script or dialogue in an attempt to capture the confusion and panic of his protagonist—the same technique Carion used the first time with stars Guillaume Canet and Melanie Laurent to very mixed reviews. An improvised thriller sounds inherently interesting—real-time tension and intensity! The actual result is depressingly not very interesting at all.
The actor willing to go out on that limb this time is the great James McAvoy, a performer who has proven in projects like “Split” that he can handle a wide range of tones and intense subject matter. He’s perfect for the story of Edmond Murray, a man who gets the call that would terrify any parent: his son is missing. Not long after being dropped off at camp, his 7-year-old has disappeared without a trace. Did he run away? Was he kidnapped? Why are they checking the nearby lake? One of the first of many mistakes made by Carion is to start giving Edmond answers way too quickly instead of allowing the film and McAvoy to live in the uncertainty.
It’s pretty clear to the authorities that Edmond’s boy has been kidnapped, and they’re concerned that it might have something to do with dad’s international work with sensitive material and covert operations. Was someone targeting him specifically? Edmond worries that could be the case, but he’s also got a suspicious eyebrow cocked at his ex-wife Joan’s (Claire Foy) new boyfriend (Tom Cullen), especially after he discovers that Joan has been given a Valium to help her sleep. Wouldn’t mom be up all night trying to find her son? Why is she being drugged? And when the new guy shows Edmond a blueprint for a new house they’re building without a room for the kid, Edmond snaps and beats him up, thinking maybe that new dad didn’t want the kid in his new life.
Is the new father figure shady? Edmond will find out soon enough. The big problem with this film is that “My Son” never lingers long enough in any of these terrifying confusions, pushing Edmond into a long midsection in which he watches videos of his son on his phone and pretty easily discovers a clue that basically leads him down a boring, dull path to the final act. Even before that, “My Son” surprisingly lacks urgency, perhaps because McAvoy is never quite where to put it. The truth is that a little thing called writing helps build rising action and tension. McAvoy seems understandably reticent to go for broke in terms of intensity, saving it up for the final scenes, but the result is a surprisingly flat movie about a missing child. “My Son” lacks in both thrills and character—two things that well-written dialogue often helps.
Think of all the places that a writer could have gone with “My Son.” It’s the story of a man whose job took him away from his child, making it so he wasn’t there to protect him. While that’s certainly familiar material for a thriller, a good writer could have imbued Edmond Murray with an almost Liam Neeson-esque drive to save the day and correct his greatest failure as a father. McAvoy is certainly up to the challenge of a project like this but leaving him in the dark didn’t lead to a more genuine character as much as a blank one. The uncertainty that Edmond feels about what’s happening to his child doesn’t come through nearly as much as the uncertainty of an actor as to what to do next. This is not meant as a slight on McAvoy, who never phones in any of his characters, but to suggest that perhaps there’s a reason that people don’t improvise thrillers—they need a kind of precision that improvisation doesn’t allow.
It also doesn’t help that the bare-bones structure that was determined before shooting is so clichéd and dull. Perhaps Carion and co-writer Laure Irrmann felt like they couldn’t provide too much of a twisting narrative and keep their improvised concept intact—you couldn’t exactly improvise “The Usual Suspects,” for example—but it leads to an incredibly rote narrative, almost entirely lacking in surprise and thrills. It’s almost as if the team didn’t realize they’d have as talented an actor as James McAvoy and so hedged their bets by making the film around their leading man as easy as possible to navigate.
The truth is that the man who played Charles Xavier doesn’t do anything wrong in “My Son,” only that the team around the actor doesn’t give him nearly enough to do. (And Foy is shockingly wasted, given the kind of part that leads one to wonder why such a talented actress was hired to fill it?) An improvised thriller should feel dangerous and unpredictable, putting viewers in the shoes of a man operating on instinct, but “My Son” often feels the exact opposite, a thriller that’s as routine as they come. And most viewers won’t even know the gimmick when they stumble upon this on Peacock and wonder how they missed it in theaters. It won’t be long to have that question answered for them. [C-]
“My Son” is available now on Peacock.