Nobel Son entertains (somewhat) while muddling messages of revenge and retribution; yet it’s implausibly contrived plot and rushed pacing basically render it a dumb movie.
The film starts out with a smash-cut character-intro sequence that is more annoying than hip, mostly because it reminded me of film school student projects—the kind where we would hack away at the story to find the core visual elements to get the movie moving. In the case of Nobel Son, it works somewhat visually, but it makes everything feel uncomfortably rushed, all set to obnoxious techno music. I know, I know, I’m being negatively critical here, but really, the intro does what it needs to, while not forgetting to step on our nerves.
We see that Barkley Michaelson (Bryan Greenman) is a frustrated PhD student, struggling to finish his thesis on cannibalism; his mother, Sarah (Mary Steenburgen), is a famed forensic psychiatrist, and his philandering father, Eli (Alan Rickman), is a professor who just won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
And unfortunately for Barkley and his mom, Eli is an arrogant monster of a man with an an ego even bigger than his voracious libido for his female graduate students. And at a special dinner thrown by his colleagues in honor of his Nobel win, Eli berates the guests with a smug and self-aggrandizing intellectualism. In a sense, this reflects the supposed theme of the movie—which seems to have something to do with cannibalism: Eli is a man-eating monster of sorts.
Barkley begins and ends the film with a voice-over quote from a 16th century philosopher: “There is more barbarity in eating a man alive than in eating him dead.” This theme doesn’t seem to make any clear sense until Barkley is kidnapped on the eve of his father’s Nobel Prize ceremony, and held for $2,000,000 ransom. Eli is, of course, more perturbed at the inconvenience of having his Nobel glory overshadowed by his son’s kidnapping and possible death. The rest of the film is used to show how to treat someone for being as barbaric as the tagline states, as the kidnappers use Barkley in their goal to torment Eli.
As things begin to unravel through lies, murder, and a whole lot of psychological issues portrayed through the lens of movie psycho-babble, the lack of profundity in the above-mentioned philosophical quote is more and more obvious. So it’s worse to eat a man alive? How about a big cup of “duh!”? As gross as it sounds, I don’t see how anyone could not think that eating a living person is worse than eating a dead person. And it’s odd that at first we notice Eli is the one who is the metaphorical cannibal of the film; but then as he is tormented for the current and past sins, the “good guys” of the movie become the cannibals.
It’s a tale of revenge as a form of cannibalistic retribution, where Eli gets what he deserves, but only to make a point that vengeance is barbaric. By the end, we’ve seen a man’s life fall apart, sadly, but laced with twisted humor to help lighten the drama. So really, we end up sympathizing with Eli, the “bad guy,” in all his delightfully wicked ways, because the apparent barbarity comes from those we thought to be the good guys. Yet there is a relatively happy ending for everyone… well, except for a couple of gruesome deaths along the way.
So what’s the message? I really don’t know. There’s a bit of “you reap what you sow,” and a little of “be sure your sins will find you out,” with a reminder of “vengeance is mine, says the Lord” going on. Sprinkle all over a bunch of college humor and you basically have a somewhat entertaining thriller-comedy.