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The heartbreaking genius of The Father, one of our favorite Best Picture nominees

Don’t sleep on this one.

A middle-aged woman and an elderly man sit in a living room. She bends forward to listen to him as he sits back in his armchair.
Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins in The Father.
Sony Pictures Classics

This year, eight films are in the running for Best Picture, the most prestigious award at the Oscars. That’s a lot of movies to watch, analyze, and enjoy! So in the days before the ceremony on April 25, Vox staffers are looking at each of the nominees in turn. What makes this film appealing to Academy voters? What makes it emblematic of the year? And should it win?

Below, Vox film critic Alissa Wilkinson, culture writer Aja Romano, and critic at large Emily VanDerWerff talk about The Father, Florian Zeller’s brilliant adaptation of his award-winning play about a man and his daughter dealing with his dementia.

The Father’s story structure is audacious and brilliant

Alissa Wilkinson: I have watched a lot of movies about people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, or about people whose memories are fading or manipulated. But The Father is on another level for me — as I watched, I was equally moved by the story and stunned by how good the film was. That scene in the dining room? Unbelievable.

Whenever I’m watching a movie about this topic, I’m thinking about how much of our individual identities are tied to the memories we hold, and the absolute fright that comes along with feeling as if not just your mind but your sense of self is disappearing. The Father imbues that feeling so beautifully by turning the camera into an unreliable narrator, drawing us into Tony’s confusion. It’s a film that teaches us how to watch it by surprising us at every turn; our confusion about who a character is and where we are in time matches Tony’s.

To start out, what did you think of the film? Were you familiar with the play it’s based on? And what resonated with you?

Aja Romano: I hadn’t seen the play but was generally familiar with it, mainly in conversation with other plays that tackle this subject, like The Waverly Gallery. There’s a frequent tendency I find with stage play adaptations, especially small stage adaptations with few set changes, where the cinematic direction can still feel staged, boxed-in, even overly blocked, if that makes sense. But playwright/director Florian Zeller does an excellent job of creating a sense of seamless fluidity in The Father, where you simultaneously feel both locked into one space and helplessly discombobulated because the space itself keeps changing and shifting around you, disrupting your ability to locate yourself temporally.

So we enter one room in a familiar apartment layout, but suddenly it’s a completely different flat. Or the room stays the same, but crucial details like the backsplash tiling or the painting on the wall have changed. Or the apartment finally seems to orient itself, but now the people in it are totally different.

An elderly father and middle-aged daughter stand in a hallway. She listens as he gesticulates.
Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman in The Father.
Sony Pictures Classics

That flow between time and space and events and people is absolutely crucial to telling this story, because it’s the story of a man with dementia who is losing his own temporal reality. Zeller’s direction and staging keep us in Anthony’s experience — his feeling of claustrophobic confusion and terror — and it’s just so well done you have to marvel at it.

It’s easy to imagine a version of The Father where these warps and shifts were treated as “gotcha!” moments for the viewer, but instead they’re presented straightforwardly as layers of distortion that increasingly unmoor us. There’s no single instigating incident that triggers some kind of dramatic mental breakdown — just an increasing sense of distortion until the immersive cinematic technique finally submerges us into the experience of Anthony Hopkins’ character.

That, too, could easily feel over the top, but instead Hopkins delivers one of the most powerful performances I’ve ever seen. He’s never a caricature, never the bombastic stereotype of himself that he has so frequently played in myriad other roles over the years — he’s so fully three-dimensional throughout The Father that when we finally see him essentially crumble it’s one extremely memorable and humbling moment. But I don’t want to talk too much yet about the acting in The Father because that deserves a whole other section. I just really, really loved this film.

Emily VanDerWerff: I am a full-on The Father stan. This movie is remarkable, and I hope that people aren’t put off by it being about dementia, because it’s somehow an incredibly entertaining movie about dementia that never undercuts its premise with silly “oh the old man can’t remember anything!” gags. And then in the end, it’s just completely, quietly devastating.

I didn’t know anything about the play, but I know enough about stage-to-screen adaptations to say that this is a pretty remarkable version of same. Zeller uses tricks that are only possible onscreen — all that subtle set redecoration Aja refers to — to make what is ultimately a story confined to a couple of locations feel thrillingly cinematic. The movie I was weirdly most reminded of was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, another cinematic triumph that takes a stage show and lets it open way up onscreen.

Most of all, though, The Father reminded me of WandaVision.

This comparison might seem bizarre, but stay with me. Both stories are about incredibly complicated, dark subjects that movies and TV struggle to talk about — dementia here, personal trauma on WandaVision — and both use the language of puzzle box storytelling (the kind you’d see on a show like Lost) to tackle those subjects. But where WandaVision fails in its use of strange mysteries of what’s really happening to its protagonist to explore how trauma ends up making one’s own life feel like a puzzle box story, The Father absolutely nails the frustration of being trapped inside of dementia by revealing how terrifying it would be to feel as though you are in a mystery you simply cannot solve.

What’s more, I love how the movie plays fair with the audience. We’re in one man’s point of view, but figuring out what’s “really” happening is both possible and not really the point. Puzzle box stories are often only as good as what their puzzle box is meant to represent, and too often it’s meant to represent making things needlessly difficult for the viewer. The Father makes sure that its use of this storytelling structure is intimately tied to its exploration of its central ideas.

You can also tell that Zeller and the actors who aren’t Hopkins talked carefully through what’s really happening for their characters who aren’t trapped inside of dementia. The Father never cheats, and that makes it all the more powerful. (I even think the fact that Hopkins is playing a character actually named Anthony is part of this movie’s weird power.)

I feel a little cheap talking about a movie that deals with an oft-covered but important topic in a brand-new way in terms of its storytelling structure, but my God, the storytelling structure is so audacious and brilliant! The Father invites you to get lost in it, then reveals just how intricately it has made you see the world exactly as its protagonist does, with superb empathy. I hope more people catch up with this one.

Anthony Hopkins in a bathroom, clasps his hands together, standing in an apartment.
Anthony Hopkins in The Father.
Sony Pictures Classics

Alissa: Emily, I couldn’t agree more with the WandaVision comparison, though as you say it’s rather odd. It also made me think of our mutual fav The Leftovers in a lot of ways. I rarely get tongue-tied trying to describe a movie, but when people have asked me about this one I feel like just waving my hands then grabbing them by the shoulders and saying YOU JUST HAVE TO WATCH IT.

Now that we’ve definitely set expectations as high as they could be: What experience did you have watching it? More than maybe any other film in this batch of very good Best Picture nominees, I feel like The Father works hard to not just move the audience but also drag them into the experience of the film and make them part of the story. Where does it lead you, as a viewer?

The way The Father reflects many people’s reality is extraordinary

Aja: I think for me the rawest part of this film was watching Anthony grapple with the loss of his apartment. My own grandmother lived in the same house for decades, raised her children there (and later me), tended her garden every day until she physically couldn’t anymore. She loved it so much. I will never forget the night I learned that she was to be put in a nursing home because her dementia had become too much for my family to deal with — that just like that, she’d never be home again. Getting that news honestly was more painful for me than her actual eventual death. Every time Anthony’s confusion about his physical location increased, I felt it to my bones.

For so many people, there’s so much to relate to on a personal level in The Father that I think for most of us, a visceral raw reaction is almost a foregone conclusion. But even if you don’t have a personal connection to the subject, the film uses the space to draw you in and enclose you in Anthony’s experience in a way that’s fully immersive and impactful. The many unanswered questions just heighten the poignance for me.

I found myself grieving, too, for Olivia Coleman’s Anne, who may or may not have moved to Paris with a man who may or may not have been an elder abuser — the revelation of which inevitably intensified the loneliness, the hopelessness, and the helplessness I felt on behalf of Anthony. Because of The Father’s unreliable narration, we don’t really know whether it was Mark Gatiss’s nurse character who’d been hitting Anthony, rather than Rufus Sewell’s boyfriend character.

So as horrifying as the living room scene is, we don’t actually know whether Anthony’s move to the nursing home removed him from danger or put him more directly in the way of it. That uncertainty is such a brutal reality for so many people who’ve had to entrust their loved ones to nursing homes, where elder abuse is so often both rampant and unreported. The Father raises that issue, albeit in an oblique way, and I expect it will linger with me for a long time.

Emily: Without getting too much into it, my own experience over the course of the last year has involved realizing that the memories I think I have are actually a series of trap doors designed to disguise the truth. In many cases, it’s not even that the memory was wrong. A story I took at face value turns out to have sinister undertones if you examine it from another point of view, or something I didn’t really understand as a child resonates differently with me as an adult who has more context for what I was seeing. But there are places where my memory seems to have failed me, too, where bits and pieces of my life that I should have remembered have swum back to the surface, smelling blood in the water.

That experience is a big part of why The Father affected me so deeply. Zeller is telling a story about learning to deal with an older relative who is struggling to handle a body and mind betraying them, but by putting us into his protagonist’s point of view, he’s making that experience more universal than it already is. Many of us will have had a parent or grandparent whose health is flagging; all of us will have a moment in our lives where we were so sure something was true, only to be brutally reminded that we had no idea what we were talking about. Zeller puts us right there.

But the scene I’m going to keep thinking about is the one that first introduces Laura, a new nurse played by Imogen Poots. She’s to be a new caretaker for Anthony, and when he meets her, he seems delighted. However, he also can’t stop referring to his other daughter, Lucy, whose non-presence in the film creates the expectation that something horrible happened to Lucy. (The movie has more to say about Lucy toward its end, without spoiling things.) But Laura is here, and she’s having a nice time, and she enjoys chatting with Anthony. He even does a little tap dance for her!

The Father isn’t all gloom, because no one’s experience is all of anything. That it finds moments when it can offer a glimpse of the joy Anthony had at one point in his life is a big part of its power, and that those moments are also gifted to us in the audience is a big part of why it doesn’t become a slog. This movie packs in so much of the human experience in just over 90 minutes. It’s really something.

Anthony Hopkins stands at a window.
Anthony Hopkins in The Father.
Sony Pictures Classics

What to watch, read, and even play after watching The Father

Alissa: What a pleasure to talk about this movie with you both! Okay: So suppose someone saw The Father and wanted more like it. What would you recommend they watch, listen to, read, or play?

Aja: Most of my recs here are actually for other plays. If you have a chance to see them, I highly recommend taking in a production of The Waverly Gallery, which is also about an aging character with dementia; Marvin’s Room (or the 1996 film adaptation), about a family dealing with terminal illness among other things; and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which if well-staged is an unforgettably immersive take on the experience of being on the autism spectrum.

The Waverly Gallery was written by Kenneth Lonergan, who also wrote and directed the deeply moving 2000 film You Can Count on Me, about a family that’s come unmoored after the death of their parents. It’s a very real, tender look at the tenuousness of our family connections, and Lonergan’s concern with grief and loss carries through many of his films, like 2016’s Manchester By the Sea.

My last rec is for a 2014 film that I always want to get more love: the quietly devastating Still Alice. It follows a highly accomplished professor who’s diagnosed with early onset dementia and tries to prepare herself for her own demise. Julianne Moore as Alice and Kristen Stewart as her daughter are absolutely remarkable, and the ending has stayed with me ever since I saw it.

Emily: I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like The Father, but let me recommend, of all things, a video game that also hits on the same idea of using the mechanics of its medium to tell a story about deep and difficult mental health issues.

Celeste is a brutally difficult platformer — think Super Mario Bros. but way, way harder — about a young woman trying to climb a mountain. As the game goes on, it becomes clear that the mountain is a metaphor for the woman’s struggles to deal with her depression, or her anxiety, or her gender dysphoria, or ... honestly, it’s a free-floating enough metaphor that you can apply it to a whole bunch of different conditions one might learn to live with.

The remarkable thing about Celeste is both how it teaches you to play it, bit by bit, but also how it ties its difficulty to its story. What is learning to live a life after dealing with a mental health crisis but picking yourself up and trying again? (If my description of the game’s difficulty terrifies you, there are modes that make it easier to play, so that you can still experience its story. But I do recommend at least trying it without those modes turned on.) I don’t know if the natural follow-up to a feature film adaptation of a stage play is going to be a video game, at least for most people, but that’s what I thought of.

If you want a recommendation you can just sit and watch, allow me to suggest the John Mahoney episodes from the second season of In Treatment, another great onscreen depiction of an older man looking back on his life and trying to make sense of it.

Alissa: I kept thinking of Marjorie Prime, another movie based on a play that explores how our identities are linked to our memories in the context of parent-child relationships and aging. It’s more sci-fi than The Father, but the tone is similar in a lot of ways, and I’d definitely recommend it (I wrote a little about it here).

And if you want to cry some more, I’d recommend Away From Her, about an older couple going through a similar experience. She needs to be institutionalized because of Alzheimer’s; he suddenly faces a future where the woman he loves may not know who he is. It’s a heartbreaker, but, like The Father, one that brings the audience into its world with delicacy and compassion.

The Father is playing in theaters and available to digitally rent on platforms including Amazon Prime, Apple TV, YouTube, and Google Play. Find our discussions of the other 2021 Best Picture nominees here.

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