Anthony Hopkins won the Oscar for his performance, so you don’t need me to tell you that his performance is brilliant, nor that The Father is a … film. What adjectives to include? Strong. Very, very good. Cast, writing, direction, every technical aspect, very, very good.
Harrowing. Unsentimental. Heart breaking – in the best sense, without soapy strings.
I think that The Father is best viewed as a horror film. A character lost in the worst maze possible, from which there is no escape, other than death. (And watching it, I wondered even at that. The temporal shifts made me think that perhaps there was a suggestion that the story stretched on forever, without even the eventual heat death of the universe to end the misery. But no. It is not that sort of horror movie.) Everything shifts. Nothing can be relied upon – certainly not identity, and definitely not memory. A film about the ultimate poverty, a person from whom everything is taken.
There are certain tropes of the horror film present. Suffering, probably unearned. The victim of forces beyond one’s control. The shifting sands of reality, even the viewer’s – you think you have a handle on it, that you are watching this and your perspective is correct, that one of the distinctive strands is correct – it has to be, because the poor befuddled devil is not even in the scene, or that part at least, but no, even the reality you have decided is the objective one also has the sand washed away from beneath it, so you are also washed offshore at Bondi Beach, hand raised for the life saver, but are you sure you even know which way is up? There are betrayals by characters you have been taught to trust. Though never ironic or campy, like all good horror films, it is leavened by moments of humour – a tap dancing Anthony Hopkins, anyone? – which serve to underline the greater horror, in fact to enforce it.
But it has won the awards and earned the money, so it does not matter what I say.
Hopkins has won the Best Actor Oscar twice, and both times for horror movies. The other was for portraying Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. I thought of that character, the psychopath so totally in control, while watching The Father. In the novels Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs, both of which I have read more than is probably good for me, and both of which I am sure I will read at least once more, Lecter demonstrates his ability to leave and enter this world at will, though Thomas Harris probably did not think of it that way. While sedated, he is able to awaken and attack a nurse. If tortured, he withdraws to his Memory Cathedral until the unpleasantness has passed. Meanwhile, the character in The Father is lost in that Cathedral, where everything familiar changes its face, where events change their order, and there is nothing certain except that he will never emerge. If punishments could truly be devised to suit crimes, then perhaps this is a punishment fit for Lecter’s sins – that this character who seems to have seized the controls of reality (he can convince another character to choke to death on his own tongue, from a distance, for goodness’s sake) lose all control, lose all his demonic certainty, and be left a quivering mess, crying for mother (instead of mourning his sister). However, it is probably not legitimate to review a film with reference to another where the only connection is the actor who appeared in both. Lucky for me then I don’t write reviews.
Still, I maintain that The Father is a horror film, all the more horrific in that the evaporation of memory and identity is something that all too many of us will witness in a loved one, and ultimately live through ourselves. If all horror films are ultimately about death, the monster that cannot be defeated, perhaps The Father is about a worse monster, about a living death closer to most of us than psychopaths and serial killers.
A monster movie that happens behind closed doors, while passers-by go about their business. No final conflict. No silver bullets or wooden stakes, or cities being wiped out. It is far more intimate than that. A horror film where no relief is to be gained by watching from between your fingers. Where there is no relief at all.