Wednesday, September 22, 2021

A Mind is a Terrible Thing to (Go to) Waste

Films: The Father
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen

My father is 86 years old and will be 87 in January. Right now, his biggest concern is that he is starting to slip a bit mentally. He thinks his memory is going, for instance, and it’s true that there are some things do seem to have slipped his memory. Dad has always been his mind more than anything; he’s always needed to be the smartest man in the room. Any sign of mental lapse worries him, and he obsesses about it. All of this made The Father a very hard watch for me.

This is very much a story about dementia. Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) is suffering from a mental decline that is rapidly increasing. At various points in the movie, he is in his own apartment, that of his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) and a nursing home. We move between these locations and between days without warning and without any real indication of what is happening. Time becomes a thing of fluidity. Anne may be moving to Paris, even though they don’t speak English there (a common refrain from Anthony). Is she moving there because she met a man named Paul (Rufus Sewell)? Is Paul her ex-husband? The answer seems to be yes, depending on where we are in the movie.

Also making some appearances in Anthony’s life is Laura (Imogen Poots), a caregiver that Anthony frequently comments reminds him of his other daughter, Lucy. We never meet Lucy and we never really find out what has happened to Lucy, but it is strongly implied that she was killed in an accident.

We will also spend a great deal of time in the company of The Man (Mark Gatiss) and The Woman (Olivia Williams). Essentially, any time that Anthony doesn’t recognize someone, they become one of these two. Sometimes, The Woman claims to be Anne, or Laura, or a nurse. Sometimes, The Man is Paul or someone who works in the nursing home.

That’s what makes The Father both a difficult watch and a compelling one. Any time Anthony is on the screen, what we are seeing is coming from his perspective. Because he doesn’t know who Anne is, we don’t know that it’s Anne. When he is standing in his apartment and opens the door onto the hallway of a nursing home, it’s because that is what he is experiencing. It’s a story told not through an unreliable narrator, but through an unreliable world where things aren’t consistent, and people change from one person into another without warning.

If you remember the last Oscars, they saved Best Actor for last under the assumption that the late Chadwick Boseman would win for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Of course, it was Anthony Hopkins who did win, and I think pretty much the entire world was embarrassed because of this. But in a normal year (and with the caveat that I haven’t yet seen Ma Rainey), Hopkins would win in a walk. This is tour de force acting, the sort of performance that an entire career builds to. Hopkins is simultaneously aggravating, terrifying, and pathetic. There’s not a moment here where it doesn’t feel like he’s really going through what we are experiencing in watching him. There’s almost certainly something like survivor’s guilt with his win, but it is a masterpiece of acting.

I’d also like to comment on Olivia Colman, who I’ve liked for a long time. I appreciated her in Hot Fuzz as well as her many roles as an important player in various David Mitchell/Robert Webb comedy programs. Track down That Mitchell and Webb Look sometime—it’s Olivia Colman who has a lot of the female parts in that show, and she handles herself as well as Carol Cleveland ever did for the Pythons. And now she has an Oscar and a well-deserved nomination for this one, because every moment that isn’t focused on Hopkins is Colman selling just how traumatic this is for Anne.

The Father is not the kind of film I want to watch a second time. It’s compelling and beautifully made, but it is a hard watch to see someone essentially time travel from point to point in their own mind, unable to control where they are and where they go, losing an entire lifetime of thoughts and emotions to the whims of whatever brain chemistry they have left. This is harrowing, and if you aren’t finding this to be painful minute by minute, you’re not watching.

A lot of movies have tackled this subject, of course. Iris, Away from Her, The Savages, Still Alice, and many others have walked their own path down this difficult road. But no other film to my knowledge has tried in this way or to this degree to frame the narrative from the point of view of the sufferer. In its own way, The Father is a kind of horror film.

It’s great work, but it’s not one I plan on seeing again any time soon.

Why to watch The Father: Perfectly acted by the entire cast.
Why not to watch: It makes you want to stab yourself in the heart.


  1. I know this is on Starz! and I do plan on seeing this as I do like Olivia Colman and Sir Anthony Hopkins. I just feel bad for Hopkins for getting a lot of the brunt over what happened at the Oscars. I blame Steven Soderbergh for his dumb presentation. At least Hopkins acknowledge Chadwick Boseman as it's a king of the MCU giving praise to another king of the MCU.

    1. I agree--Hopkins didn't deserve any of the fallout.

      This might be his best work on screen, and that's saying a lot.