Anthony is an 80-year-old Welshman who is frequently visited by Anne, his daughter. Anne questions if he is capable of living in his flat – especially after displaying an abrasive attitude with a recent caretaker. Anthony insists that he doesn’t need help, although with his surroundings inexplicably changing right before his very eyes, Anne finds herself at wit’s end.
It doesn’t take long before you realize that things are not quite as they seem in this film. Anthony insists that he doesn’t need a caretaker, yet sometime after the first scene, he is in utter bewilderment when an unknown man is sitting in his room. To make things stranger, the man insists that the flat belongs to him – not Anthony. After arguing with him for a bit, Anne returns to the flat – now played by a completely different actress.
Yes, the central premise of The Father is that Anthony, named after the actor portraying him, Anthony Hopkins, is suffering from severe dementia – all but stated to be Alzheimer’s disease. Many films such as Jonathan Levine’s 50/50 or Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes featured important characters afflicted with the disease. It became increasingly especially common in the early twenty-first century when studies had been conducted about the disease, and its effects consequently became more well-known. However, what The Father does is quite different from any of those films; it showcases the decay of one’s mind through the viewpoint of the afflicted.
What makes The Father stand out is that it simulates the effects of dementia to such an astonishingly effective degree, you will feel just as confused as Anthony himself. The scenes are presented in a deliberately confusing anachronistic order. To wit, it’s implied that Anthony’s attitude causes the caretaker to leave in frustration, yet in a later scene, she is ready to start her first day. Then, there is the fact that certain details change without explanation; pictures randomly disappear and reappear, Anne is supposedly divorced only for her husband to appear, and they may or may not intend to move to France. And this isn’t even mentioning the fact that multiple actors and actresses portray the same exact people. His condition has progressed to such an extent that he can’t even recognize his own daughter or anyone else he sees every day.
Part of what sells the narrative is the casting choice of its central figure. Anthony Hopkins is a great pick when you consider his more famous roles. Whether he was Hannibal Lecter or Odin, you could count on the characters portrayed by Anthony Hopkins to be in complete control of their situations. The actor gives a very similar performance in this film, but instead of coming across as empowering, it only accents his extremely tenuous grip on reality. He insists he doesn’t need help and everything is fine – even though he doesn’t remember that Anne’s sister, Lucy, has been dead for years or even what any of his family members look like. He is even utterly powerless to stop Anne’s husband from striking him, although it is left deliberately vague as to whether or not this event actually occurred.
As a character, Anthony makes for quite an interesting study. He is established to be an abrasive man – particularly in how he treats Anne. He has no qualms admitting that he prefers Lucy over Anne, frequently demanding to see her. Anthony also tends to assume the absolute worst of everyone, believing them to be conspiring against him or otherwise attempting to drive him insane. However, these negative traits are almost certainly the result of his dementia. It’s entirely possible he was a more amiable figure in the past, but because whatever lucidity he may have possessed is long gone, his negative traits are magnified. Because of this, it’s impossible not to feel sympathy for the man.
Anne pointedly never outright says what happened to Lucy because Anthony would feel the heartache of loss again. In fact, this is a real thing people go through when someone close to a person with Alzheimer’s disease dies; the surviving family members find themselves avoiding the subject because it would cause the afflicted to suffer immense grief for the first time again.
In the end, Anne realizes Anthony is too far gone and commits him to a facility. The way this is presented is consistent with how the rest of the story was told. Anthony has a dream about Lucy only to wake up in a nursing home. It turns out Anne moved to Paris long ago with her husband. The man and woman who temporarily portrayed other characters in Anthony’s life were hospital workers all along. Now, his sanity has deteriorated so much that he doesn’t know his own name and desperately wants his mother to make everything better.
This underscores just how tragic the plight of anyone suffering from the disease truly is. This is a man who has had so much life experience, but the degradation of his own mind took that all away. It’s a form of death that leaves its victim alive. Everything that made them what they are disappears into nothingness, leaving behind a vague construct with only a scattered few memories to cling onto – and even those slip away.
It’s intriguing because if any other story was told in a similar fashion as The Father without the internal justification of being a manifestation of its protagonist’s dementia, it would be deservedly criticized for its bad storytelling. Therefore, I find the real triumph in Florian Zeller’s debut effort is how he manages to go so far against the grain of what typically constitutes good storytelling and crafts a masterful narrative out of these counterintuitive choices.
In some respect, The Father manages to be a spiritual successor to Michael Haneke’s Amour. Both are arthouse films that cast well-known veteran actors in the lead role, dealing with problems often occurring in one’s twilight years. The two films are also similar in that they make for incredibly difficult watches. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself only capable of watching this film once. You have to be in the right kind of mood to get anything out of The Father, for it cannot be watched recreationally. In fact, it’s very difficult to recommend to anyone who has ever experienced a loved one suffer from dementia because the way the narrative simulates the effects of Alzheimer’s disease is scarily accurate. It’s a tough sell to anyone who has been in that situation, but if you can stick with it, your efforts will not go unrewarded.
Final Score: 7/10