The Father (2021)

At this point, there’s nothing especially novel about a movie simulating the first-person, subjective experience of dementia.  If nothing else, the reality-shifting dementia narrative has been attempted at least twice on the television shows Castle Rock & BoJack Horseman in recent years, which indulged in the exercise for one-off episodes.  It’s already become a genre template with its own firmly established rhythms & tropes, not much different than the stuck-at-the-airport or trapped-in-an-elevator episode templates of 90s sitcoms.  What those immersive dementia narratives don’t have in their arsenal, though, is the acting talents of Sir Philip Anthony Hopkins CBE (no offense meant to Sissy Spacek or Wendie Malick, who anchored their aforementioned TV episodes capably).  I don’t know if you’ve heard this before, but Anthony Hopkins is very talented.  Get this: he even won an Oscar for Best Actor this year for his work in his own dementia-driven actor’s showcase, The Father (his first win since 1992’s Silence of the Lambs).  And from the outside looking in, The Father looked like it was specifically designed for those kinds of Awards Season accolades, landing an already beloved, established actor enough highlight-reel worthy moments to look believably Oscar-worthy on a television broadcast.  In practice, though, The Father gives Hopkins much more to do than to simply collect gold-plated statues in a late-career victory lap.  It doesn’t reinvent the immersive-dementia-narrative template in any substantial, formalist way, but it does find a way to make it thunderously effective as an actor’s showcase, and Hopkins makes the most out of the opportunity in every single scene.

While Hopkins’s performance as the titular, increasingly demented father is the film’s centerpiece, much of the credit for that performance’s impact is owed to first-time director Florian Zeller.  Adapting his own eponymous stage play for the screen, Zeller dutifully follows the standard tropes & rhythms of the immersive dementia narrative.  We follow Hopkins through his subjective experience of place & time.  The physical details of the apartment he occupies and the faces of his caregivers transform as he loses track of where & when he is in the labyrinth of his own mind.  His nonlinear sense of reality prompts him to recall future events, while he also conveniently forgets past traumas in an endless loop of repeating, excruciating conversations.  It’s a mildly surreal experience, but not an unfamiliar one if you’ve seen it done on TV before.  What really distinguishes this example is the complexity and sudden stabs of cruelty in its stage play dialogue, all excellently performed (including supporting performances by other talented Brits like Olivia Coleman, Olivia Williams, and Imogen Poots).  Watching Hopkins viciously tear down the few people in his life trying to help him cuts through the narrative’s familiarity like a dagger, especially since you never stop feeling for him even when he’s at his worst.  His basic persona shifts just as much as his sense of reality & time.  Within a single conversation, he’ll transform from an adorable flirt to a heartless monster, devastating the family members & nurses who’re struggling to care for him despite his stubborn pride & prickly demeanor. 

Sometimes Hopkins is deeply befuddled, his mind visibly buffering to reorganize the details of his environment until they make sense.  Sometimes he’s scarily sharp, psychologically eviscerating his loved ones with a throwback Hannibal Lecter sense of caustic wit.  That alternation between vulnerability and cruelty feels directly tied to stage play writing, recalling the tender-vicious turns of dialogue in works by Edward Albee, August Wilson, or Tracy Letts.  This movie earned a lot of attention for the subtle shifts in its set design and the surrealism of its demented reality.  Its real strengths are much simpler and even more familiar than its immersive dementia narrative, though.  It’s most impactful for providing an astonishingly talented actor with complexly written dialogue and setting him loose on the stage.  Unfortunately, time is linear, so it’s likely we won’t see many more virtuoso performances from Hopkins as the years march on, much less any of this high caliber.  His Oscar win was mildly controversial due to this year’s messy, Soderberghian Oscar ceremony billboarding a tribute to Chadwick Boseman that never came together.  That might’ve made for an embarrassing television broadcast and a major disappointment to Boseman’s most ardent mourners, but at least the work that was rewarded instead of Boseman’s stands out as something substantially, recognizably great.  If Boseman’s nomination had been upstaged by Gary Oldman for Mank or Rami Malek for Bohemian Rhapsody there’d be a lot more to be angry about.

-Brandon Ledet

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