'My Son' ('Mon garcon'): Film Review

An intense if somewhat generic low-key thriller.

Guillaume Canet stars as a father doing anything to get his son back in this kidnapping thriller from Oscar-nominated director Christian Carion ('Joyeux Noel').

When a father’s little boy disappears in the snowy woods of eastern France, he embarks on a nail-biting crusade to get him back before it’s too late. Seen this one before?

From Taken to Prisoners to the recent Kidnap, there's been no shortage of movies depicting parents going out on a limb to save their children from imminent doom. And while My Son (Mon Garcon), which marks the latest collaboration between Joyeux Noel director Christian Carion and star Guillaume Canet, hardly deviates from formula, it’s got a nervously eerie feel to it that’s grounded in Canet’s gripping turn as a dad out to do good for his estranged family. Released wide in France, this generic but potent effort, which was apparently shot in six days, should rake in decent numbers at home and find takers abroad looking for the next Anything for Her or Tell No One.

Clocking in at a swift 84 minutes, My Son hits the ground running — or rather driving, as we follow geologist Julien (Canet) winding along mountain roads to arrive at the campsite where his 7-year-old son Mathys (Lino Papa) went missing a day earlier. A teary-eyed talk with his ex, Marie (Melanie Laurent), and an anxious interview with a gendarme (Mohamed Brikat), allow us to surmise the facts: Julien moved out of town a few years ago after separating from Marie, who’s now hooked up with a local named Gregoire (Olivier de Benoist). Since then he’s been working abroad and maintains minimal contact with Mathys, who's been suffering in his absence and has suddenly vanished while on a nature trip.

The guilt that hangs over Julien is evident from the film’s early scenes, where he tries to reconnect with a family he left behind for a new life. For a few seconds you even think he could be responsible for his son’s disappearance, although suspicions soon fall on the creepy Gregoire, who reveals his indifference toward Mathys’ fate and seems unhinged enough to have hurt him. In one of many upcoming vigilante moments — which, truth be told, seem well beyond the powers of an ordinary geologist — Julien suddenly beats Gregoire to a bloody pulp, taking revenge on both his thwarted marriage and missing child.

But of course that doesn’t solve the mystery, and off Carion and Canet take us on a slow-burn wild goose chase as Julien, who refuses to cooperate with the police, tries to handle things on his own. A bunch of red herrings are tossed his way, including something to do with the shady business ties his company maintains in the Middle East. But he manages to piece the puzzle together soon enough — so soon, in fact, that it tends to strain credulity, although My Son is less about narrative consistency than about plunging its hero into a white-knuckle situation and letting him run with it to the end.

In that sense, Canet really holds the movie together, giving Julien a dark and frantic bent that keeps us glued to our seats. The actor apparently improvised his scenes, which were shot in order without Canet knowing what was coming next, and as gimmicky as that sounds, the stress ultimately pays off. Even when things somewhat fly off the rails in the last act, with a bogus explanation for the kidnapping that involves stock baddies and the violent use of a golf club (though if ever there was a daddy weapon, that would be it), we remain fixated on Julien’s fight to find his son.

To keep tensions high, Carion employs a low-key, highly visceral aesthetic that’s a far cry from his Oscar-nominated WWI drama Joyeux Noel and his glossy WWII epic Come What May. Working with DP Eric Dumont (The Measure of a Man), he makes excellent use of the snow-capped settings, with Julien driving back and forth along country roads that lead to sinister locations in the middle of nowhere. Sound design by Thomas Desjonqueres (The Dancer) adds to the unsettling atmosphere, while the score by Laurent Perez del Mar (The Red Turtle) winds up overplaying itself. Other performances are strong, with Laurent effective in her handful of emotive scenes and de Benoist memorable as a new boyfriend who gets the ass-whupping he deserves.

Production companies: Nord-Ouest Films, Une Hirondelle Productions, Caneo Films, Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes Cinema, CN6 Productions
Cast: Guillaume Canet, Melanie Laurent, Olivier de Benoist, Antoine Hamel, Mohamed Brikat
Director: Christian Carion
Screenwriters: Christian Carion, Laure Irrmann
Producers: Christophe Rossignon, Philip Boeffard
Executive producer: Eve Francois-Machuel
Director of photography: Eric Dumont
Production designer: Guillaume Watrinet
Costume designer: Sarah Topalian
Editor: Loic Lallemand
Composer: Laurent Perez del Mar
Sales: Wild Bunch

In French
84 minutes