My Son, the Peacock streaming movie to which star James McAvoy was not given the script, is like watching someone play a personalized, feature-length narrative videogame. Writer/director Christian Carion remade his own 2017 thriller Mon Garçon, which presents its lead Guillaume Canet with the same conceit, throwing McAvoy into the dramatic deep end. The cast and crew are fully informed, but he only has the vaguest idea of the story: His son is missing. But he gets no screenplay. No dialogue. It’s like he’s a Marvel star that won’t stop leaking plot points. The experiment’s a dull watch, but it’s far more fascinating a case study than it is a piece of drama. And if we dig into the gimmick that makes it so interesting, we can piece together why its inevitable compromises make it so boring.
As quickly becomes apparent as you watch, the way you have to make a movie in order to make it navigable for an actor with no idea what the hell’s going on is very specific. In fact, it’s a lot like how you might design and write a videogame, where you limit a player character’s options and set their stage in order to guide them along your story’s arc with a (hopefully) invisible hand. Also linking the two forms is the line between active and passive spectatorship that separates even the most “cinematic” games from movies. Players make choices, or at least take actions that have repercussions. We might not be making choices here, aside from the questionable one to sign up for Peacock and turn on this movie, but ostensibly, McAvoy is through his mostly on-the-spot performance.
My Son is not just an opportunity to revisit the excellent improv game Give Me Back My Son, but a film inexorably linked with improv as a technique. Not having a script required McAvoy to rely on his well-honed ability to tap into whatever emotion a scene requires, and his unknown detective instincts as he tries to figure out what happened to his boy. Experimental, but not unheard of—especially if everyone else filmed was participating in that collaborative tradition. Many movies feature ad-lib and improv, and have since the beginning.
Early silent comedians were constantly restructuring films to better fit the best gags; Jean Renoir saw improvisation as an ideal, as “the most accurate way of getting under the skin of life,” as scholar Gilles Mouellic describes it. Off-the-cuff moments can supplement a screenplay’s plan with memorable and vital humanism, later pulled out as canonized factoids (Indy shooting that swordsman; Travis Bickle posing some repetitive questions to his reflection) or compiled into Apatow outtake reels of riffing—it’s no coincidence that this comes up most explicitly with larger comedies seeking spontaneity to juice up a moment where lines are less important than laughs.
But as you get more indie, you run into longer-form and more intentional improv. Like Crazy, The Blair Witch Project, the films of Nobuhiro Suwa, Mike Leigh and the mumblecore movement all aim for enhanced realism by dropping their characters into situations and putting faith in their actors to react accordingly. These find their gaming comparisons in the tabletop world; Mike Leigh often builds characters out with his actors for weeks before shooting, and you have to imagine he’d be a great DM. But rarely, if ever, are movies built like My Son.
It’s not a case of true improvisational theater, with actors being given characters, basic desires or even nothing at all, and asked to engage in whatever play—storytelling or non-narrative—develops “naturally” between them. Nor is it guided improvisation within a given framework, aimed at producing the most unexpected humor or the most honest characters within a preplanned story. Rather, it’s a case of meticulous structure—flexible structure, perhaps, but painstakingly planned—designed for the experience of a single player: James McAvoy.
As a sidebar, it’s worth noting that McAvoy is an avid gamer, specifically enjoying story-centric experiences like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion—a game he played so much on the Xbox 360 that his all-nighters were distracting him from work on Becoming Jane. But My Son puts him deeper into a game than ever, even deeper than when he had to burn his copy of Oblivion on his gas stovetop in order to break free from its thrall.
While it’s hard to say if he made the connection between the two experiences, as McAvoy and Carion didn’t seem to do any press for My Son, Carion and Canet did a bit for Mon Garçon. And Canet was right on the money: “It was like a role-playing game in fact, I was projected into a story where I had no control over anything.”
That might seem paradoxical coming from the one guy operating with no written script, but you feel this from My Son’s opening moments. As Edmond (McAvoy) introduces himself to police at a taped-off crime scene (where he’s prompted to present identifying documents) and hugs his ex-wife Joan (Claire Foy, who quickly gestures towards a new location and comments “I can’t go back there” like the NPC that she is), that would-be invisible hand is more than a little opaque. The dialogue and physical movements of the actors and production are leading. The camera lingers on McAvoy’s listening face to see what, if anything, will happen. The expectations for its star are laid out, only a bit more obvious than they’d be later. What else did you expect? If this is a videogame, the opening scene’s a tutorial.
If I was McAvoy, I’d chafe against these “invisible walls.” If you’re taking a risky role like this, you’re presumably ready to follow your instincts wherever they may lead you. Being directed to a person that clearly points you towards the next location, well, it foreshadows a fenced-in narrative that might make any improv feel a bit like trying to get to the horizon you see but can never reach in an open-world game. You hit those invisible walls at some point. But this is a movie, and a down-to-earth one at that—you can’t surround McAvoy with a mountain range, or an out-of-bounds area that’ll kill him with radiation. So how, exactly, does this production replicate these gameplay boundaries?
“When Guillaume arrived in the building, with the crew we manipulated him,” Carion explained about Mon Garçon. “We positioned the crew in such a way that Guillaume couldn’t come towards us. He couldn’t walk through the crew, so we pushed him forward. He had to go one direction; we pushed him like a mouse towards its hole, constantly. He realized it. He knew he was stuck and that’s what was great. We pushed him where he needed to go—it happened very organically.”
Ok, but…did it? “Organically” and “manipulated” don’t often describe the same thing, especially so closely together. And that’s not a dig on the filmmaking, but on how they saw their own methods. There was perhaps still some room for meaningfully realistic improvisation, or at least enhanced reaction, within these clear confines, but a mouse on the way to its hole has a single endpoint and only so many things to do along the way. If it happens to scurry in with seeming fidelity to a rodent in my apartment, is that any more realistic than if I had written for it to do so in a script? Is any minor deviation (An errant sniff—cheese? No, back to the hole) something unique to a performance removed, but not freed, from a script? McAvoy’s forgettable work here—not terrible, not even bad, but not memorable—argues against it. But even if his flexibility isn’t quite as exciting as it seems on its face, McAvoy’s is still a different performance, one existing in a space where media forms are blurred—somewhere between traditional film, videogames and reality TV/game shows.
A new, different kind of artifice arises from regular filmmaking. Since only one party is really improvising, sometimes McAvoy’s ventures seem to fall on deaf ears as characters soldier on with their own bits of pre-programmed business. It’s a grinding clash of intention and result that will be familiar to anyone that’s ever laughed at a pile of pixels for saying something ridiculous that’s totally inappropriate for the situation. To keep it relevant to Mr. McAvoy, let’s take a look at this example from Oblivion:
People in My Son don’t turn on their heels with a curt “Bye” after a long conversation starter, but the concept still applies. At one point, Edmond is arrested and—in the back of a police van—screams impotently at the cops who’re taking him off: “You’re not going to say anything? Nothing?”
Well, no, they’re not. For the same reason that most NPCs won’t say anything about your behavior if you jump around like an idiot or crouch while you walk around in front of them. There’s nothing in their script about it. This isn’t quite an open-world game, nor even one with branching decision trees. It’s solidly, restrictively linear. That experience is on the surface of My Son for much of the runtime—an improvised performance that only meshes with the movie if it allows itself to give into what the movie has already planned for.
“We rehearsed for two weeks with all the other actors to understand the nature of this movie,” Carion said of Mon Garçon. “For the crew to take their marks, everything was pre-lit. And when Guillaume arrived on set, I told him I never want to wait. There’s no hair and makeup, there’s no slating, there’s no script, there’re no rehearsals, there’s only one take. Because if you do it again, then he knows. So, it puts an insane pressure on all the departments.”
Canet contradicts this, explaining that actually they did do things again—and there were multiple conflicts that came about due to the unique production. A confrontation that ends in a fistfight in both movies was “very strange” according to the actor, a scene “where I stopped right in the middle, because I was telling [Carion] that I didn’t understand what we were doing.” They did it again after some directorial assurance that things were on the right track, but there were also “reactions they had anticipated that [Canet] did not agree with,” and things that “weren’t credible in [his] opinion, they weren’t doable.” Those were rewritten as they went—necessary bends in the rules. The game needed to be able to react. Actions, meet consequences. But as these compromises are made, the ideals of the gimmick fall apart.
My Son’s goal, the creation of a unique performance that lends an enhanced thrill because of its realistic emotional and logical reactions, means breaking away from efficient filmmaking standards. It has to be shot chronologically, or else McAvoy is REALLY screwed. The goal of improvised realism—if only for one actor among many, one element of an unimprovised film—becomes unattainable if reactions and emotions aren’t allowed to build and develop alongside the plot. That also applies to takes: The more takes of a scene you do, the more McAvoy subconsciously builds up expectations in his mind of what’s happening—of what will happen. As he does that, chances for an instinctual flash of affectless honesty get slimmer and slimmer. He’s also improving at the game throughout the production, so he’s fitting in better with his scene partners and smoothing out any fumbles or foibles. That might psychologically translate (in the minds of the filmmakers, at least) as a person coming to grips with a new situation, but it doesn’t come across like that—any wild-eyed vitality that comes from the literalized nightmare of being put on camera without knowing your lines is gone.
But a truly reactive experience would be a nightmare to shoot and prohibitively expensive. You’d have to plan for every eventuality, or at least massively increase the shooting schedule—depending on your lead’s decisions—to prep new scenes based on whatever he might do and wherever he might go.
There are a few parts where the camera takes on the first-person perspective of Edmond, sneakily looking out from behind a corner. Are we asked to believe that this is what McAvoy is choosing to look at? It’s not GoPro footage or anything, which means that a camera operator is either replicating a choice or foisting one upon him. Earlier in the film, Edmond tracks down and tortures a man involved with his son’s disappearance. In the following scene, after Edmond has left to a second location that’s existence he extracts from the man, Joan arrives at that house. She finds the torture victim, but more importantly, she finds a small boy, drugged and unconscious, in the back of his car—somewhere Edmond (or, I suppose, McAvoy, showing his lack of detective skills) didn’t look. From a purely textual standpoint, it’s a left-field little moment that sort of communicates Edmond’s violent and one-track state of mind. But in the context of the film and its gimmick, it starts sparking more meta ideas. Did Edmond, or at least someone, need to find that boy? Did Carion have to go back and shoot that scene after McAvoy ignored the car? Was that built into the production schedule as a possibility—like, was Foy on location as McAvoy shot the scene just in case she needed to follow up? It really boils down to a single question: Do McAvoy’s choices matter for the movie at large?
If he’s just a mouse corralled towards its hole, with any cheese he might’ve missed along the way getting eaten by other mice, shot for coverage, then no. He’s being railroaded; choices lead to the same outcome, environments are designed for only one destination. Not much room for improv or its ostensible artistic value.
“It’s almost like a scheduled documentary,” Carion said of Mon Garçon. “It’s a mix of a lot of things, but to me it’s still cinema.” Without getting into how a “scheduled documentary” is in any way different from a normal documentary, let’s just say Carion is right. Mon Garçon and My Son are movies. Whether the productive, gripping, unique improv they aim for as a driving force is actually attainable within the environment he constructs, well, that I’m not too sure about. My Son’s whole “watch a guy give into the strict determination of his RPG” thing isn’t particularly satisfying, but its failures at least highlight the changes that’d need to be made if, say, Netflix—as it and its bottomless budget become increasingly interested in the blend between games and movies—wanted to finance and shoot a story entirely reactive to the choices of one player-actor.
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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