Directed by Christian Carion, and currently streaming in the UK via Amazon Prime Video, is the British mystery-thriller, My Son. The film – starring James McAvoy and Claire Foy – centres around an estranged father, who is put through the emotional wringer when his son Ethan goes missing.

In the movie, Ethan is away at a holiday camp in Scotland when he suddenly disappears overnight. The police are called in to investigate his disappearance, with Ethan’s father, Edmond arriving at the crime scene distraught over the situation.

Edmond works away from home, often travelling to different countries all over the world, so hasn’t been back for some time. However, he never imagined he would be returning home under these circumstances, and is deeply concerned about his son’s whereabouts.

Over the next few days, Edmond comes to believe that Ethan’s disappearance may have been planned, leading him to launch his own investigation. But as he goes in search of his son, he soon finds himself uncovering some disturbing revelations.

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My Son is an unusual movie, which is somewhat removed from a traditional mystery-thriller. What separates it from its stablemates is not the narrative, nor the setting, but rather the way in which the film was shot.

Unlike traditional movies, where everything is planned to the nth degree in advance, and all of the actors know their next line before they step onto set, parts of My Son were improvised. Lead actor James McAvoy was not given a script of dialogue for his part, and instead he moves his character through each scene based on gut feeling and direction alone.

When his character, Edmond, learns new information, that is McAvoy learning it too. And when Edmond speaks, this is McAvoy providing the lines, reacting to words and performances that are being delivered around him.

It is a curious way to make a movie, with a lot of pressure placed on one actor’s shoulders, but it is a filming technique which offers a very different approach to other films. Perhaps more importantly, it provides enough of a hook to get audiences interested in this thriller, which incidentally is a decent one to watch.

But the hook is not without its problems, and becomes both a blessing and a curse. So, while My Son is a good little thriller, with a very strong central performance from McAvoy, I believe an audience’s appreciation of this film largely rests on knowing how it was filmed, rather than what it offers.

What I mean by this, is that if you go into this movie blind, not knowing about McAvoy’s unique position in the film, then you might come away feeling that My Son is a little slow in places. You might also feel there are very few twists and turns being served up, with a story that is in all honesty, pretty average.  

However, if you go into My Son firmly in the knowledge that McAvoy is re-acting to each situation, with the actor bringing his own feelings and emotions to the screen, you’ll no doubt come away having had a different experience. You will look beyond the limitations of the narrative, to focus on what McAvoy brings to his role, and you’ll see the movie from a whole new perspective.

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McAvoy is a great actor, and has proved this in various roles throughout his career. In My Son, his skills are put to the test, and he rises to the challenge admirably, managing to manoeuvre his way through this story without putting a foot wrong.

I have nothing bad to say about him here – nothing bad at all. Everything he does in this film is fantastic, and watching him take on a part like this, and appreciating how challenging it must be working without any scripted dialogue, is worth seeing the movie alone.

The issue I have, is that because everyone else knows he is playing the role from a different standpoint, it appears (at least to me) as though he is being treated differently. His fellow actors give him a bit more room to breathe so he has space to perform, while those behind the camera let scenes run a little longer than usual, because some of the shots were created off the cuff.

So, the problem isn’t McAvoy or his performance, the problem is how everyone reacts around him. Both the cast and crew are aware he’s playing things differently, and this shapes the way the film is constructed.

This isn’t to say any of the cast are bad, because they are not. It also isn’t to say that from a technical viewpoint, the crew don’t make the movie look good, because this isn’t the case either.

The issue is that the central ‘gimmick’ of the picture, and arguably its most notable selling point, ultimately becomes a bit of a weak link. Too much emphasis is placed on this one area, when perhaps more attention should have been focused on the movie’s shortcomings, which is the story.  

And for those who are not aware, this film is an English-language remake of Christian Carion’s own French movie, Mon garçon (2017) – so this isn’t his first stab at this story. As such, having already delivered one version of the film, there is no excuse for not presenting a more complex narrative on this second go around, so I do believe it is fair to say the story needs beefing up.

The story isn’t bad, it’s just nothing special. It doesn’t cover new ground, or offer anything that hasn’t been seen before.

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But putting the so-so story to one side for a moment, My Son does have one very significant ace up its sleeve (aside from McAvoy), and that is the way it looks, which is absolutely stunning. Every shot is rich and involving, every frame helps to convey the right tone and emotion, and the Scottish backdrop in particular really helps to shape and inform so much of the movie.

The vast open spaces, the harsh wilderness, and the somewhat bleak climate play a significant role in this film, with the Scottish landscape becoming almost a character itself. There are shots that look like they should be showcased in a glossy magazine, and they provide the perfect setting for a mystery of this kind.

The sprawling land looks inviting, but could easily provide the nooks and crannies needed to squirrel away a missing person. The picturesque scenery is delightful to view, and simply breath-taking at times, but a slight change in the weather easily alters the mood and meaning of each scene.  

For all my grumblings about the story, what I believe director Christian Carion gets right about this movie is the way he presents his scenes. He drops his characters into exactly the right place, knows exactly how to use the environment around them, and delivers something which looks amazing.

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I don’t believe My Son is a perfect movie, and I don’t think it quite lives up to its potential, but I do think it is a good movie, and certainly one for those who like grim and gritty thrillers. This film delves into some dark places, is emotive at times, and never fails to captivate when needed.

It looks great, with the cinematography being something of note, and everything from the sound and lighting, to the setting and atmosphere are key components. Sure, the story doesn’t have quite enough oomph at times, but it is serviceable enough, and gets the characters from A to B to C.

The key to this whole thing though is McAvoy – his performance is the highlight of the picture, and for me, the true strength of this film. For better or worse, this movie is centred around him, and he does everything he is asked to do and more.

I do believe that for all its plus points, the movie does live or die by an open knowledge of what McAvoy is doing in the movie, but once again, so long as you understand his role in the film, you will have a better experience with this picture. So, it’s good, not amazing, but good and worth a watch.

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