A well-crafted drama can frighten as much as any good slasher flick. I think one could even argue that there’s already a distinct genre out there populated by dysfunctional families, deeply unsettling metaphor and shockingly unconventional violence. Claustrophobic, sporadically bombastic, and chillingly understated, these living room thrillers are often initially quite divisive yet often seem to find longevity. “Dogtooth” comes to mind, along with “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Zaida Bergroth’s “The Good Son” is one of these films.
Ilmari (Samuli Niittymäki) is a dangerous teenager with more than typical family responsibility. His mother, the actress and tabloid target Leila (Elina Knihtilä), is an impressive whirlwind of fragility and vindictive vanity. This leaves Ilmari to raise his younger brother Unto (Eetu Julin) and guide his mother through career crises. The boys’ father is out of the picture, only briefly referenced as a long-forgotten character in Leila’s past. Yet his absence leaves the family with at least a perceived opening for a new older man to interfere. Aimo (Eero Aho), one of Leila’s perpetually boozed up friends, sees that gap and tries to cut in.
The inevitable clash between Ilmari and Aimo is hardly surprising as it develops, yet it really doesn’t need to be. This is a film of affects, dependent upon Bergroth’s sense of pacing, the cool acidity of its cast and the dark foreboding of its symbolism. The opening act is pockmarked with eerie moments as a wicked violence peeks around the corner of the frame, eagerly anticipating its grand entrance. The stage is set quite early, when Ilmari and Leila arrive at their lake house only to find a nest of baby birds in the chimney. Unable to do the deed herself, the easily rattled mother has her son light the fire and extinguish these desperately chirping lives in her stead. There’s a subtle grandeur in moments like this, brief glimpses into cruelty that herald the arrival of gloomier violence in no uncertain terms.
There are moments in “The Good Son” that feel not unlike an episode of “Cougar Town” scripted by Jean-Paul Sartre. Leila and her friends drink copious amounts of wine and pick on each other viciously, while Ilmari attempts to fortify the increasingly tenuous mother-son relationship that anchors the film. Yet whereas that French writer’s contention that “Hell is other people” certainly comes through loud and clear in this contemporary Finnish experiment in familial claustrophobia, “The Good Son” is still clearly rooted in the terrestrial world. Much of Aimo and Ilmari’s vitriol stems from simple accidents gone haywire or misunderstandings fueled by the characters’ penchant for constant lying. When there’s brutal anger bubbling under the surface, any mundane excuse for conflict must burst into flame.
As the lights go up after 90 minutes of this dark Nordic experience we are left with a profound sense of ambiguity. Bergroth has not crafted a work as unapologetically acerbic as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” or other Strindberg-esque ice storms. The comparisons on the TIFF website to Vittorio De Sica’s “The Children Are Watching Us” and Carol Reed’s “The Fallen Idol,” two equally morose but much less bitter films, are still valid. “The Good Son” features a number of mitigating and almost redemptive scenes, showcasing the young love of Ilmari and his summer girlfriend alongside the occasionally endearing whimsy of Leila and her artist friends. We walk away from Albee’s George and Martha profoundly affected but also somewhat relieved that we need not experience any more wicked party games. Here, with Ilmari and Leila, we are left adrift between loyalties and pondering their future. Moral and emotional ambiguity is not often this sharply striking.