The Father | ★★★★ | Now Playing
A painting hangs above the mantel. Then, it’s gone. A faint outline on the wall remains. Was it ever there?
A man is in the kitchen. Then, he’s gone. Then, he’s a completely different man with the same name insisting that it’s been him all along.
You are you. Then, you aren’t.
That’s the mental game of cat and mouse that Florian Zeller expertly arranges in his new film, The Father, which follows an octogenarian Brit named Anthony, in a hauntingly brilliant performance by Anthony Hopkins, as he navigates the shifting corridors of his deteriorating mind.
It’s a genre-bending, heartbreaking, and deeply human film that takes its audience deep into the unreliable psyche of its protagonist in what may be a career-best for a man perhaps best known for playing a monster.
Films often depict dementia at an arm’s length, through the clouded mystery of glazed-over eyes. There’s a sense of detachment and pity, but rarely true empathy. Through masterful cinematography, Zeller succeeds in lending us those dimming eyes. The view is terrifying.
The plot, if there is one, is so simple that describing it is almost an injustice.
It takes place almost entirely within the walls of Anthony’s luxurious London flat. He goes about his day, puttering around in his pajamas, listening to music, and is often visited by his daughter Anne—played by a captivating Olivia Colman—who is growing increasingly concerned that Anthony can no longer manage living alone.
Slowly, and subtly, things start to change. Literally.
At first, it’s unclear quite what–the placement of items in the kitchen, the furniture, a painting. Something is off, but you can’t put a finger on what and neither can Anthony as he travels from room to room, at times belligerently ranting that it’s not him whose grip on reality is unsound. He’s smug, in a way that men desperately grasping for control often are, and sometimes morphs seamlessly into a complete asshole.
The claustrophobic design, with its ever-changing set-pieces always framed neatly within the same set of walls, creates a feeling of perpetual unease. It’s a visceral and chilling experience, like being on a sinking ship you can’t escape.
Hopkins is quite used to playing scary characters—most notably Hannibal Lector. But as an audience, seeing the terror grow in his eyes is unnerving. He realizes, along with us, that he is what’s wrong, but he can’t do anything to stop it.
Colman also deserves kudos for a heartbreaking and empathic performance as she endures the wrenching passive-aggressive abuse from a delirious Hopkins while unshakably loving him, no matter how hard it may be.
The Father began filming in 2019, many months before COVID arrived, but in some ways, it’s the perfect quarantine movie. Anthony is trapped within his labyrinthian mind, unable to discern his own reality or escape it.
With few characters and a near-monolithic set, the film is prophetic of the less successful features filmed during COVID—notably the floppy heist movie Locked Down—that lacked the vision to transform their constraints into creative, genre-busting chemistry.
Here, the prison of a fading mind blooms in agonizing detail.
The story has been updated to correct the spelling of Colman’s name.
Follow writer Leigh Tauss on Twitter or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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