By Darren Franich
March 12, 2017 at 10:00 PM EDT
James Minchin III/AMC

A brash American epic filmed with cruel enervating tastefulness, The Son suggests a Faulkner novel adapted into a second-rate BBC drama. Adapted from Philipp Meyer’s 2013 book, AMC’s new series doesn’t lack ambition. The first episode begins with Eli McCullough, a teen boy living in Texas circa 1849. In the span of a few minutes, we watch Eli’s life burn to the ground, his family destroyed by attacking Comanche.

Eli’s played by Jacob Lofland, a lanky actor with eyes that seem to be twice his own size. But Eli is also played by Pierce Brosnan. While we follow young Eli into captivity with the Comanche, we also follow a much older Eli in 1915, by which time Eli is a wealthy patriarch who dreams of an ocean of oil under the land he fought to control. While young Eli struggles to understand his captors, the grown-up Eli struggles against and within a new civilized era. The Texan borderlands of the 20th century look different from the frontier Texas of the mid-19th, but The Son explores the chaos lingering beneath both historical surfaces.

Unlike most period pieces, The Son thrills to the unexpected dissonance and confusing blurred lines of history. Although the violent Comanche initially seem like the barbaric figures who tormented John Wayne in his worst westerns, Eli quickly discovers their confusing depths. The most fascinating character in the show is Toshaway, a thoughtful war chief who speaks more languages than a Swiss banker. (Toshaway is played by Zahn McClarnon, last seen stealing the entire second season of Fargo.)

In 1915, Eli and his family become embroiled in the complex societal infrastructure along the border with Revolution-era Mexico. There’s a real, albeit blunt, resonance in these sequences. Eli’s opposite number is Pedro Garcia (Carlos Bardem), another local patriarch struggling to keep his family together amidst a changing world. Garcia’s son-in-law is a rebellious figure who dreams of a Mexican Texas. The generational discord is cultural, and national: Not merely “Mexican” vs. “American,” but “Mexican” and “American” and “Mexican-American” and microscopic permutations therein. “I’m an American,” says Garcia sternly, to a son-in-law who despises what America stands for. “So is your wife. So is your son.”

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What’s an American, anyway? It’s a question The Son seems uniquely capable of answering: Moving far across time but hardly at all geographically, the show seems set in several different countries, all of them lawless for the powerful people who invent the law.

Meyer’s novel was formally inventive, told in multiple parts with different narrative strategies. Meyer himself adapted the novel; the series is his first screen credit, which may explain why the show feels oddly plain. (The other creators are Lee Shipman and Brian McGreevy, who created Netflix’s forgettable Hemlock Grove.) In the two episodes I’ve seen, the 1849 sequences are shot with repetitive realism. The camera lingers close to young Eli, in long unbroken takes, as he gradually learns about his captors’ culture. Lofland’s a compelling screen presence, but he has little to do besides stare, angrily. And I have faith that the show wants to dig deep into Comanche culture, but the first two episodes are oddly stereotypical and trope-y in their depiction of Native American life. (There’s a sex scene that plays as white-boy-gone-wild wish fulfillment.)

Meanwhile, in 1915, power and violence swirl around the McCullough family. Big things are promised; an ear is chopped off. Brosnan’s miscast as the aging renegade paterfamilias. He commits to a Texan accent the way he committed to singing in Mamma Mia! But the bigger problem is how the writers keep feeding Old Eli dialogue weighed down by themes. This show is about a world entering a modern age, so Brosnan literally says “We’re entering the modern age.” The show wants to balance Eli’s man-of-the-west anarchy with his sons’ new-model capitalism, but that dynamic feels algorithmic instead of dramatic. Bearded, wearing well-appointed suits, Brosnan looks like an aristocratic gentlemen of leisure. There’s no connection between him and desperate young Eli – and none of the raging internal fire the show clearly needs the elder Eli to possess.

Still, I’m intrigued by The Son’s possibilities. The opening credits seem to promise an even more expansive vision of American history. And I admire the show’s democratic vision of Texas as a never-ending culture clash. The Son will rise — if it can live up to its ambitions, if it can more convincingly explain how young Eli on the frontier became old Eli at the dawn of civilization, and if it can be even half as wild as the West it wants to explore.

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