The Father (12A) ****
Nobody (15) ***
The surprise winner of this year’s best actor Oscar, Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal in The Father of an elderly dementia sufferer is a defiantly unsentimental interrogation of a terrible disease. Closer to psychological horror than straight-up drama, it’s also oddly reminiscent of the role for which Hopkins won his first Academy Award: Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. In that modern classic he played a charming man imprisoned by an insane brain; in The Father he plays a charming man imprisoned by a deteriorating brain.
Based on director Florian Zeller’s award-winning play of the same name, the film gives us flashes of the urbane gent Hopkins’ protagonist, Anthony, used to be. But like the smudges that cause his classical music CDs to jump and repeat, jump and repeat, his disintegrating mind is stuck on an imperceptible groove, cruelly forcing him to re-experience the same few moments over and over again until his confusion becomes its own form of trauma.
Telling the story from Anthony’s subjective, highly unreliable point of view, Zeller sets the film mostly in a well-appointed London flat, seeding doubts early on as to whether said flat belongs to Anthony or his long-suffering daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman). At certain points the kitchen cupboards change and perhaps the layout, too. More unsettling still, so do the flat’s inhabitants. At one point, for instance, Anne is suddenly played by Olivia Williams and though the character is sometimes single, at other times she has a husband, who in turn is sometimes played by Mark Gatiss and sometimes by Rufus Sewell.
All of which gives The Father a kind of disorientating power that works pretty well, even if the narrative trick Zeller is attempting to pull off might seem a little mundane or obvious to anyone who has watched a lot of genre cinema (the big reveal has become a pretty hoary staple of horror movies and sci-fi films). Nevertheless, in this context, the film’s subjectivity helps distinguish it from other recent dementia-themed films such as Still Alice and Away From Her, both of which examined the disease through the prism of family members left to care for the sufferer.
That’s not to say say we don’t also get Anne’s perspective. There’s a chilling moment of temporary desperation that shows the toll that caring for an elderly relative can take and, throughout the film, Colman’s face remains a remarkable study in get-on-with-it stoicism and quiet heartbreak, the latter evoked every time something reminds Anthony of Anne’s deceased sister, who is now alive and well in his bewildered mind.
The real advantage of mediating our experience of the film largely through Hopkins’ performance, though, is that we get a more robust and empathetic view of what it means for a man to confront his own mortality having been robbed of the emotional resilience that his 80-plus years on the planet should have given him. Whenever he behaves like a toddler in the early parts of the film, he’s really laying the groundwork for a devastating pay-off in the final ten minutes, one that features Hopkins at his rawest and most vulnerable and leaves you in little doubt about why he won that Oscar.
The mild mannered family man pushed to his limit by a violent act has been a B-movie cliché since Charles Bronson played an architect-turned-vigilante in the Death Wish movies, but it was given a lucrative tweak more recently when Taken subverted audience expectations about the type of actor who could convincingly carry this kind of film. Turning Liam Neeson into a middle-aged ass-kicker just when he seemed destined for a blockbuster career playing ageing mentors was an inspired move, one that Nobody gleefully replicates with Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad star Bob Odenkirk.
Last seen on the big screen playing paterfamilias to the March sisters in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women adaptation, Odenkirk – who spent his early career in comedy – goes rogue in a movie that revels in turning his dad-bod into a lethal weapon. He plays Hutch Mansell, a man with a secret past who seems to have willingly emasculated himself in order to pursue some kind of suburban idyll. Jump-cutting through his daily routine – his morning jog round the neighbourhood, his wife nagging him to take out the trash, his dull job filling out spreadsheets for his factory-owning father-in-law – the film quickly sketches out how deadening his existence has become.
But when his deliberate inaction during a home invasion costs him the respect of his son, he no longer feels able to suppress his former existence as a black-ops government agent and so embarks on a John Wick-style mission to unleash mayhem on anyone who crosses him. Though only two years older than Keanu Reeves, Odenkirk is, of course, no one’s idea of John Wick – except, perhaps, John Wick screenwriter Derek Kolstad, who also penned Nobody and gives Odenkirk enough room to slyly acknowledge the regressive nature of this film’s plot while simultaneously embracing the opportunity to have fun going kill-crazy on a bunch of Russian mobsters.
Ilya Naishuller (Hardcore Henry) directs with brutal efficiency rather than balletic beauty, but Odenkirk injects enough charisma to make it easy to root for Hutch as he works through his murderous midlife crisis.
The Father is on general release from 11 June; Nobody is on general release from 9 June
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