More than horror, I think, if there is one genre that has a clear widespread appeal and about just as many takers when it comes to audience numbers, it is the thriller, and let’s face it. We all love being bested at the movies. A thriller with a twist one can see coming from miles away or one that isn’t convincing enough simply won’t stick: it has to be a compelling one all through.
For the average Netflix weekend viewer or the Friday night binger, I thus bring good news in the form of Netflix’s latest, a small Argentine film, ‘The Son’, or ‘El Hijo’, one that I will state in the beginning, you absolutely must catch. I will reserve my detailed take on the film, as always, for the end of the writeup, but the crux of the matter is that ‘The Son’ should surely be up on your list this weekend. If you haven’t already watched it, I suggest you do straightaway. We will still be here with this dialogue when you’re back!
Steering our horses back to the discussion, even something as homogenously accepted as a “thriller” has just infinite subgenres, and after ‘The Son’ or ‘El Hijo’ as it is originally called, I am convinced that the “domestic thriller” clearly has more thrills than even your average, say murder mystery or abduction thriller. The reason? The guise of normalcy. Everything is perfectly shrouded in the garb of everyday domestic life, and yet the atmosphere is anything but: uneasy, eerie and unsettling.
All of this usually manifests through one troubled character, who certainly is aware that there is something terribly wrong with the way things are conspiring. ‘El Hijo’ has all those ingredients, and so much more that it has going for it, all manifested rather artfully. Yet again, it clearly fits within the clear mould of its genre that sees two clear distinctions in the way its endings develop. One that seeks to build and build until either dissipating all that tension by the end, or one that spikes it up for an unclear or shocking conclusion, leaving you to ponder. If you have seen ‘The Son’, you instantly know what category it belongs to. Here, we discuss everything about the movie and more. Read on.
Summary of the Plot
I would not be too wrong in saying that ‘The Son’ is the unfortunate tryst of one man, Lorenzo Roy, an artist with a troubled history of marriage and domestic life with his first wife and two daughters living separately. However, life has barely started looking up for Lorenzo since he is now more involved with his work, and has a second wife that he loves and is trying to have a child with, Sigrid. Right from the opening credits that include graphics that are a confusing mix of overlays of the Fibonacci Spiral, abstract art derived from the same, and microorganisms that resemble the same shape, you realise that you are going to be drawn into a world of conflict and variability.
The couple is close with another couple, Renato and Julieta, the latter of who has had a history with Lorenzo. Shortly into the film, it is revealed that Sigrid is a biologist, and Lorenzo’s current series of paintings that he wishes to put up on display are inspired from her research. Conversations centred around the same, and about an artist Lorenzo seeks inspiration from who used sketches of spirals to depict evolution in abstract form are particularly interesting to hear at the time they occur in the film, although they clearly are meant to signify more than a brewing conflict.
The story employs two parallel narratives to unfold: the current one wherein Sigrid is pregnant and the couple are preparing for the baby, and another one winding down from some point in the future, where Lorenzo is shown under arrest and hurt. Julieta acts as his lawyer and bails him out, who is then worried about the safety of his son. From here on, for the sake of simplicity, I am going to explain things linearly for them to make more sense. Things begin to first look eerie when the couple visits an obstetrician and Sigrid refuses any medicines for the baby or for herself. The couple also disclose, much to Lorenzo’s displeasure that they will be having the baby at their residence only, under the supervision of a nanny or some maternity help.
Dismissal of foreign medicines isn’t where it stops for Sigrid, who Lorenzo one day spots administering an injection of Heparin to herself straight into her pregnant belly, being a biologist and operating and researching out of their basement. Lorenzo grows increasingly weary of her erratic behaviour, and things are thrown into the whirlwind when Sigrid has her orthodox Norwegian nanny, Gudrum, come over to help with her delivery until the baby was born, a welcome she clearly and formidably overstays. Lorenzo is immediately suspicious of her as he is increasingly sidelined from the baby’s prenatal care, but lets it pass until the day of the delivery finally arrives.
The couple is asleep one stormy night when Lorenzo suddenly awakens to find Sigrid gone and her water broken on the bed. It is quickly revealed that she is in labour and the baby is being delivered by Gudrum, but behind closed doors. Lorenzo is kept out of the locked room despite repeated protests, and is only allowed to meet the baby once he is delivered and resting. Six months pass and Lorenzo is left increasingly shook, frustrated and paranoid at the way Sigrid and Gudrum have been raising the son, named Henrik at home. He expresses his disappointment and concern to Julieta and Renato who are visiting to see Henrik, disclosing that the baby hadn’t stepped outside in six months, that even he was allowed to see him only four times a day, and the lights in the house too were dimmed because Henrik had photophobia, a diagnosis only Sigrid confirmed.
All of Henrik’s meals are prepared at home, even if he clearly rejects them, and it is increasingly clear that he is being singularly cautiously being raised by Gudrum and Sigrid, even leaving out the father in the process. Things get troublesome when one day, Henrik can’t stop crying because of a routine high fever, and both Sigrid and Gudrum fail to do anything about it. Lorenzo storms out of the house with Henrik to take him to a doctor, but resistance from Sigrid who violently scratches his neck leading to him apparently mistakenly knocking her down to the floor.
At the hospital, it is revealed that the fever was only normal and would take some time going away, but when he returns home, Henrik is immediately taken from him and a 3 month restraining order forcing him away from Henrik and his home is passed against him on grounds of domestic violence, and also that Sigrid had filed for divorce. He spends the three months at Renato’s and Julieta’s, where he is told that it would be difficult to sue for custody owing to his troubled family history and alcoholism in the past. He finally heads back home after 90 days and finds that the kid he meets isn’t his son Henrik. He immediately revolts and begins looking for Sigrid who is nowhere to be found, making his way to her research station in the basement that he finds is bolted like a bunker door, and has a lock code on it. A threatened Gudrum calls the police and Lorenzo is taken away.
Back to the parallel narrative, Lorenzo begins living an isolated life away from Sigrid and his son in a rented accommodation, and is apparently diagnosed with psychosis and Capgras Syndrome declaring that he had trouble recognising distinct faces and remembering them. Soon after, he receives a legal letter from Sigrid who now wants to share custody but demands that Henrik would be taken away to meet his Scandinavian grandparents, something that would require Lorenzo’s consent since he was the biological father. He refuses, dismissing all claims of Capgras and demands a day to be spent with Henrik, to which both mutually agree, with Julieta representing Lorenzo as his attorney.
He picks up Henrik the next day and takes him over to Renato’s, where he officially declares them to be his godparents. By pretending to be in the bathroom, he escapes to his older house, convinced that he would find something there. He climbs on to the attic from outside and makes his way to the basement, only to find among Sigrid’s unusual research material, another baby, one that he immediately recognises as his son, Henrik, implying that the baby with Renato and Julieta was a decoy. Sigrid appears behind him with a rifle, and while the scene cuts, it is obvious that she shoots and kills him, escaping with Henrik and Gudrum later.
Julieta and Renato discover what Lorenzo was up to, and follow him up to his rented house, only to discover disturbing frequent drawings of a baby’s face, presumably Henrik, declaring his obsession with the issue and his paranoia, now proven true, still persisting. The couple then drive over to Sigrid’s and discover Lorenzo’s dead body, calling the police who then investigate the murder. Sigrid and Gudrum are absconding, and Renato and Julieta assume custody of the baby that was left with them.
The Ending, Explained
Two years pass since the particular series of events and Renato and Julieta are shown a happy couple with the baby grown up, and the trio have apparently visited somewhere abroad. As the unlikely sequence of events would turn out, she encounters a glimpse of Gudrum who she immediately recognises and follows, leading her up to a completely secluded residence, where to her surprise, she also spots Sigrid, and similar air conditioning and purifying apparatus on the ventilator windows, as was installed at Sigrid’s and Lorenzo’s earlier residence after Henrik was born. She tries lurking and peeping inside the house from the ventilator window.
In an effort to drive home as open-ended a finale as possible, the camera admirably stays focussed solely on Julieta’s face, and she is terrified as she discovers another child in there, presumably also discovering all of Lorenzo’s suspicion and paranoia to be completely true. By now, if you don’t have too much of a wild imagination, the writing is clearly on the wall. Sigrid is a clear case of Munchausen’s by-proxy syndrome, and her obsessive care of the baby in all the ways that I described above: keeping him under close supervision always, no foreign medicine or treatment, dim lights in the house, only home-made food that she approved, and special HVAC equipment, all of it is her clearly making up for the miscarriage she suffered earlier, and doesn’t want to lose the baby at any cost, as she explains to her obstetrician.
While Munchausen’s By Proxy is clearly regarded as a form of mental illness, its degree here is difficult to ascertain since we are not able to see the degree to which the bay is affected by her methods. More so, her by-proxy here cannot stem from guilt, but rather from regret of having lost a baby earlier. I say this since the reasons of her miscarriage are not revealed, but it definitely is something that is bound to leave a psychological imprint on the mind of Sigrid. “Overprotective” here is just the beginning of the definition of everything wrong.
Was There Actually A Second Baby?
Unequivocally yes. The film could most definitely have been even more open-ended had it been left on only Lorenzo’s discovery of the baby, since that would have left the verdict up in the air. It would then truly have been ambiguous as to whether it was Lorenzo or Sigrid that was the troubled one, but in this case, Julieta too sees the baby (while we hear his cries), thus confirming that there was a second baby, most definitely. What then conspires is that Sigrid and Gudrum came up with the twisted idea after realising how Lorenzo could be a threat to their plan of Henrik’s “controlled” upbringing.
However, that is threatened when Lorenzo immediately recognises the second baby as a sort of decoy and creates a ruckus landing up in jail. Moreso, he is still aware that he is sure of the truth since he doesn’t show any signs of affection after meeting Henrik months later, while Julieta cannot stop gushing over him. His recognition is further fuelled when he immediately looks at the baby in the crib in the basement and addresses him as his son, just before he is shot by Sigrid.
As for Sigrid’s side, there is absolutely NO way of knowing how in high heavens she landed up another baby, open to the wildest of interpretations, but for now, we will have to be content with there being a second baby to act as decoy, put in place after Lorenzo took the real Henrik to the doctor and grew weary of them. Something very similar with two babies is also represented in one of Lorenzo’s sketches in his room that Renato and Julieta later find.
There may be some who believe that Sigrid actually conceived twins or that she was she a twisted biologist who somehow managed to clone the baby, the latter being rather amusing. However, the twin claims are immediately dismissed once we look back on the baby’s scan at the obstetricians in the last days of her pregnancy, and also because Munchausen’s by-proxy doesn’t selectively manifest itself over only one of the twin babies. Unless you actually believe she cloned her baby, you will have to content with the fact that the two ladies somehow managed to get their hands on a similar looking baby from, say an orphanage, or something similar in the same realm.
Thus after having Lorenzo out-of-the-way, clearly only for public appearances, the real Henrik’s crib was shifted to the basement in Sigrid’s lab where he was then cared for, leading to the installation of the HVAC equipment there. Another instance that makes this very clear is Gudrum taking ‘Henrik’ to the daycare, where she is followed by Lorenzo. Given Sigrid’s paranoia of Henrik’s “photophobia” there is literally no chance that Gudrum took the real Henrik out to a daycare, where he would be playing with the other kids under the supervision of somebody else. That there was definitely the second baby.
Will There Be a The Son Sequel?
‘The Son’ has an open-ended climax, which means there is really a story thread that the makers can pursue if they want to in the next film. But then, there are so many other factors that will decide wether the film gets a sequel or not. Of course, a lot will depend on viewership numbers, which we will never exactly know (Netflix doesn’t make them public). So, at this point, we have no other option but wait for an official announcement.
If you are looking for easy answers, this may not be the right film for you. However, if like me, you like a decently made thriller that mines from its characters and setting and nearly all tools of film: editing, background score, lighting, cinematography and the like, delivering a satisfyingly incomplete puzzle, look no further than ‘The Son’. After a couple of mediocre movies in the last weeks by Netflix, I am glad that this little Argentine indie gem will be able to reach a wider audience. It is tense, it is real and it keeps you hooked over its original narrative of the seemingly mundane. It’s finely made, and you cannot help but appreciate the craft in some scenes, especially the sound design. It may not have all the answers, but has enough to keep you thinking over the weekend.