Review: Of Dead Rabbits, Beers and Men—Remy van Heugten’s “Son of Mine”

Remy van Heugten’s drama Son of Mine (Gluckauf), which screened at the International Film Festival Rotterdam and World Premieres Film Festival 2015, delves into intergenerational conflict between a father and his son. Son of Mine’s visual and spoken language (a dying Dutch dialect) combined with carefully crafted mise-en-scene and powerful acting result in a complex, dynamic exploration of the father-son relationship.

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Son of Mine addresses the eternal problem of the generational rebellion and taking charge of the old. Lei, the father, played by Bart Slegers, is a petty criminal. How he became one and what exactly he does is never clarified. Jeffrey, his son, played by Vincent van der Valk, inevitably falls into the father’s way of living and becomes a drug dealer. Unlike his father, however, Jeffrey is not satisfied with paying with dead rabbits at bars. Jeffrey is ambitious and aims for a bigger catch, both literally when he hunts a deer and metaphorically, in his criminal dealings.

Even though Lei and Jeffrey’s criminal activities are a big part of the plot, the film’s conflict is concentrated in the power struggle between Lei and his son. Jeffrey has grown out of blindly following his father’s lead and is not only willing to take charge, but does so quite successfully.  The shift in the family dynamic is emphasized when Jeffrey, after closing a deal, takes the driver’s seat, forcing his father to become a passenger. As they two literally switch places in the car, Lei’s ego is wounded. He can no longer govern his son, and he is losing his value in the criminal world. What kind of man is he now?

The tragedy of the film is in the dissonance between Lei’s overt machismo and his enormous love for Jeffrey. After saving Jeffrey from being killed, Lei hugs his son to the point of practically suffocating Jeffrey – and this serves as a visual metaphor for their relationship. Lei saves Jeffrey only to kill him later on. Jeffrey’s girlfriend, one of the very few women in the film, finally intervenes, making Lei release his deadly embrace and thus saving Jeffrey’s life.

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This overt machismo is also emphasized by a dominance of male characters in Son of Mine. All the women in the film – Jeffrey’s girlfriend, his mother, and a flock of Slavic-looking victims of sex trafficking – exist only for men: to please them, to provide for them, to comfort them, and even to save men, both physically and morally. This world – a world of petty criminals, degrading patriarchy and dying traditions (including the Limburgish dialect), has no place for women.

This question of manhood is essential for the story. What makes one a man? Is it just a beer in one hand and a shotgun in the other? Is it stealing cars and selling stolen goods? That seems to be the idea of manhood for Lei. Lei – a “real” man – values actions over words and thus does not talk much.

Son of Mine’s frequent silences and brief dialogues, along with several long shots that focus on one repetitive action (driving, walking, and so on), give an impression of a slow paced film.  The pace, however, considerably picks up in the second half of the film as the father -son dynamic intensifies.

But even despite the slower pace of the first half of the film, the emotional density of every phrase, every interaction, and the psychological motivation behind the characters’ actions grip our attentions from the opening sequence and do not let go until the closing credits of the film.

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In a sense, Son of Mine is a tragedy. The economic and social environment of this small town presents a crushing lack of diversity of opportunities for the youth. The personal relationship between Lei and Jeffrey mirrors hunting prey – or rather, hunting each other.  Even the film’s formal elements, almost constant visual darkness of half-lit rooms and grey, rainy weather, all point to a decay, a kind of inner darkness, that hints at closed shutters within the characters themselves. The end seems inevitable. The only hope is for those unborn – for Jeffrey’s son, who will not be raised a by wolf-father, but by a mother, in a different place.

Son of Mine further poses bigger questions about human nature instead of blaming everything on one’s socio-economic situation. The film raises questions about ethics and morality in general, which we ponder along with the characters. What does it mean to be a good father and a good son? What does it mean to be a man? What makes one a decent human being?

There is nothing wrong with posing “the same old questions” through a well-told story – and Remy van Heugten’s Son of Mine does exactly that. After all, there is still no single, objective answer to any of those questions. It is necessary to return to them at least every once in a while.

Masha Boston

Masha Boston

Masha Boston holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from UC Davis. During her academic career (2005-2014) she specialized in Russian cinema, history of film, and Russian lit. She's taught at a handful of universities and is the coolest professor in town.

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