By Brodie Ziegler
Despite a labyrinthine release since its initial debut at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, Florian Zeller’s The Father is one of the best films to come out since the start of the pandemic. Showcased at multiple film festivals throughout 2020, The Father received numerous setbacks in its worldwide release. However, Zeller’s disturbing and absolutely devastating portrayal of an aging father (Anthony Hopkins) suffering from dementia finally received a release late this March that a film this powerful deserves. The Father follows and strictly locks on to Anthony as his battle with dementia faces him with various caretakers, and conflicts with his daughter Anne’s (Olivia Coleman (and at times Olivia Williams)) supposed plans to move to Paris with her lover Paul (Rufus Sewell/Mark Gatiss). As appearances change, surroundings transform, personas blend, and history fades. The Father navigates the blurred perspective of Anthony as his grasp on reality loosens.
The Father is a character study and a character-driven film above all else. That is, Anthony is the core influence on his surroundings, rather than the other way around. When considering his situation, and the disease in which he is struggling with, this dichotomy between Anthony’s ever-changing worldview, and the unchanging world around him becomes unbearable. Zeller’s unique decision to structure the film almost purely around Anthony’s perspective allows for a perfect storm between the film’s point of view, and Anthony’s own personality. A charming, yet biting man, who masks his fear and uncertainty with a veil of hubris and stubbornness, Anthony’s character is an amplification of his illness. This facade of certainty and strength crumbles throughout the film, and like a reverse aging process, Anthony’s pure center is left in the rubble, vulnerable and scared.
The entirety of the film’s success is built upon the foundation of Anthony Hopkins’s performance and character, not only structurally, but also thematically and emotionally. Aided by their identical names, Anthony Hopkins disappears into his role, portraying confused rage, extreme pride, charm and sensitivity throughout the film’s short runtime. The overbearing feeling exuded from both Hopkins and Coleman in their two remarkable performances is vulnerability, and yet Zeller doesn’t limit their characters to this singular quality. Surpassing what possibly most directors would have established and developed, Zeller takes both Anne and Anthony and molds them into very specific multi-dimensional characters. Prohibiting their vulnerable circumstances to define their characters, both Anne and Anthony possess unfavorable characteristics, allowing them to appear as humans rather than puppets for emotional resonance. While Zeller’s screenplay does veer off towards the realm of heavy-handedness at the end of the film, it feels deserved as Anne, and especially Anthony, have juggled with the viewer’s sympathy throughout the film. Rather than crafting a story of pure woe that could potentially border on being off-puttingly maudlin, The Father is a film of uncertainty-bred conflict, fearful hostility, and striking fragility, making it all the more human. It is in this humanity that The Father is maximally powerful.
It is The Father‘s presentation of its study on a man inflicted by dementia that makes the film so impactful. The uncertainty and fear deep-rooted in Anthony are reflected in Zeller’s similar direction to that of a horror film. With tense musical scores, dim lighting, and unrevealing camera angles, The Father is a terrifying viewing for multiple reasons. As the audience, we only perceive the characters, narrative, and environment through Anthony’s eyes, as his own uncertainties bear down on the viewer as well. The most heartbreaking occasions are when Anthony is forced to accept his changing environment, and therefore, we are as well. Viewing the world through a shattered lens, the viewer is forced to find air on a sinking ship, as it sinks below the surface with us.
Zeller deftly utilizes every aspect of filmmaking to aid in the representation of Anthony’s broken perspective. One of the most pressing concerns of Anthony is in regards to his flat, as any perceived change in his surroundings results in conflict and disorientation. The film’s production design brilliantly changes the colors of the apartment’s walls and the location of various pieces of furniture to represent this experience. However, the camera is latched onto Anthony to the point where these changes may even go unnoticed by the audience, ingraining an unnoticed feeling of doubt and uncertainty in the viewer as well. Another common focus of Anthony’s is his watch, which is often misplaced by Anthony and then mistaken for stolen. The intense focus on this item, and repeated search for its whereabouts, heartbreakingly calls back to Anthony’s metaphorical loose grip on reality, and his repeated attempts at finding stable ground.
A film that delivers levels of intricacy rarely seen on the widescreen, multiple viewings of The Father may be intellectually rewarding, but too emotionally devastating for most audiences. The narrative unravels out of chronological order, and the setting, actors, and characters repeatedly change throughout the film, making Anthony’s tenuous grasp on time and his whereabouts a shared experience for the viewer. Whether the circumstances are relatable or not, The Father is an incredibly empathetic film. Approaching life, and casting it in perhaps the most devastating shade, The Father is a film about fading relationships, and yet it manages to reaffirm their importance in the first place.