Despite it being a difficult subject to broach, dementia has been relatively popular in cinema over the past several months.
Last summer saw the release of Relic, an Australian horror film that makes literal the treacherous indicators of a decaying mind. In the fall, there was Dick Johnson Is Dead, Kirsten Johnson’s unconventional Netflix documentary about her aging father’s worsening mental faculties.
Just in time for Oscar season, we now have The Father, a prestige drama told from the perspective of a protagonist suffering from progressive memory loss.
None of these three films will be easy for those who have loved ones suffering from similar ailments to watch. I suspect The Father could be the most difficult to watch of the three.
Adapted from Florian Zeller’s 2012 play Le Père, the movie centers around octogenarian Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) and his slowly deteriorating state of mind. His daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) and her husband Paul (Rufus Sewell) have welcomed him into their London apartment, where he passes the time listening to opera and hiding valuables from caretakers that he deems untrustworthy.
When Anne breaks the news that she and Paul are planning on moving to Paris, Anthony feels a sense of betrayal and fear of abandonment that reverberates through the rest of the story. As more characters are introduced, the sense of reality becomes more subjective as faces blur together and facts begin to lose their sense of permanence.
In his directorial film debut, Zeller demonstrates a keen ability to put the audience in the shoes of an essentially housebound man who grows more paranoid with each passing day. He has a way of making the limited confines even more stifling by filling the space with the loneliness of a man’s later years.
When other characters do show up to the apartment, they are sometimes played by different actors who seem to have differing backstories from the people we think we know.
Credit to the film’s deceptive nature also goes to editor Yorgos Lamprinos, who utilizes jump cuts and unconventional timing to give the film an off-kilter rhythm that mirrors an unsettled mind.
Despite establishing a uniquely deceptive tone that’s pitched somewhere between family drama and psychological thriller, the actual narrative is not as involving on its own merits. Even at just over 90 minutes, the film’s pace is often languid and not especially packed with incident. Perhaps this is a story better told on stage, where the singular location isn’t as much of a drawback and the atmosphere of the room heightens the experience.
The theatrical aspect is carried over primarily in the central performance by Hopkins, which is indeed good work but exudes the kind of righteous anger that culminates in the film’s “stagiest” moments. It doesn’t feel as understated as the work that Colman and Sewell are doing here, although it’s possible that it was never supposed to anyway.
I applaud Zeller for creating a movie about dementia that so entrenches us in the experience of suffering from such a cruel and pernicious disease. The most effective scenes in the film recall the fear and insecurity that permeate heady alt-horror fare like last year’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things. But it doesn’t feel like a gimmick or exploitation; it just feels real.
Just recently nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, it doesn’t seem likely to score any wins (especially since Chadwick Boseman is a lock for Best Actor), but the nominations may draw enough attention for crowds to seek it out.
The Father is certainly not an easy sit, but it’s a brave portrayal of those struggling with dementia and the caregivers on whom they rely.
Other new movies coming this weekend
Premiering on Netflix is Bad Trip, a hidden camera comedy starring Eric André and Lil Rel Howery about two friends who embark on a cross-country road trip to NYC with pranks and misadventures along the way.
Streaming on HBO Max is Tina, a music documentary about Tina Tuner’s early fame, her private and professional struggles, and her return to the world stage as a global phenomenon in the 1980s.
Opening in theaters is Nobody, an action thriller starring Bob Odenkirk and Connie Nielsen about a mild-mannered Good Samaritan who becomes the target of a vengeful drug lord.