Nobel Son is not an easy film to foretell, and with its constant genre-morphing subplots, psychotic characters and unordered narrative, it will keep you guessing all the way through. This escape from convention is not always a good thing – the first half hour of the film tries the patience and is so disjointed and seemingly nongermane that it’s impossible to predict the relationships of the bizarre events. Once you’ve made it to the second act, pieces start to fall into place and realizations are hinted upon, but it doesn’t stop there. More twists, more complexities and one too many unlikely coincidences might make you think twice before feeling satisfied by this suspenseful drama/dark comedy/horror/mystery thriller.
The opening scene consists of an alarmingly brutal thumb-severing bit of violence that perfectly paves the way for the unpredictable and mind-boggling adventure that follows. Eli Michaelson (Alan Rickman, in a wonderfully despicable role that he continually excels at) has just been announced as the winner of the Nobel Prize for his stellar work in chemistry. He’s egotistical, eccentric, uncaring and obnoxious, and has been handing out higher grades in exchange for sex with his young female students. His son Barkley (Bryan Greenberg) is struggling with his PhD thesis on cannibalism (his opening line of narration quotes Michel De Montaigne, a 16th century philosopher: “There is more barbarity in eating a man alive than in eating him dead.”). He also struggles with an awkward romance with City Hall (Eliza Dushku), a morbid poet and artist with her own bountiful measure of oddness.
Eli’s wife Sarah (Mary Steenburgen) is a renowned forensic psychiatrist who is fancied by Max Mariner (Bill Pullman), a somewhat crafty detective. On the morning of the family’s trip to Sweden to attend the Nobel Prize party, Barkley is kidnapped and held for a $2 million ransom; the money awarded to Eli. From here, backstabbing, jealousy, lust and greed collide in nonstop twists and turns, proving that once again nothing is what it seems.
Every character in Nobel Son is devious, shrewd, freakish, obsessive compulsive or morally flawed (most often all of those combined) making it difficult to side with any of the numerous antiheros. The first plot surprise is unique and smart, but then the filmmakers try too hard and it becomes unnecessarily convoluted. This is where the unexpected genre confusion comes into play, at times heading down the path of taut mystery thriller, always mixing in dark, subtle humor (and blatant grossness with poetry reading from “Death By Drain-O” and verses involving bathing in excrement), and eventually borrowing from films like David Fincher’s Seven, Body Heat, Wild Things and even Mission: Impossible.
Nobel Son is definitely a shock to the system, an unconventional film that reminds us of the chaos of those rare movies that breathe life into the most peculiar characters and situations. It’s not perfect and its originality only comes from the amount of time that has passed since a movie like this was presented, but it’s certainly worth a try.
– Mike Massie (www.GoneWithTheTwins.com