The mind, like the body, is a creation of dizzying intricacy. Just as we don’t think about how the heart beats or the lungs breathe, neither do we question what our brain tells us is true.
But sometimes, something in the brain breaks. Clogs. Slows. Skips.
If the body goes wrong—the heart, the lungs, the legs, the teeth—we know it. We feel it. We do something about it, because our mind tells us we must. But when the mind goes wrong, it doesn’t look, to us, as if it’s broken. It looks as if the world has.
Anthony knows his world. He knows who he is, what he loves and how he spent his life. His walls are filled with books and records and pictures of the past, evidence of a life well lived. He has two grown daughters—one he barely sees and loves, the other whom he sees all the time and … well, she’s just all right.
Perhaps he’d appreciate Anne more if she wasn’t always around. But she is. It’s as if she’s moved in to his flat, and at an age when she should really be out on her own. She has a husband named Paul, too—or, at least she does part of the time. And then there are the strangers that Anne insists on bringing in: nurses or helpmates or whatever they’re called. As if Anthony needed help. As if he was old and feeble and not perfectly capable of living his life as he always has.
No, these “helpmates” are of little help to Anthony. They’re terrible, in fact—babying him incessantly and, often, stealing things when they believe he’s not looking. He’s been forced to hide his most prized possessions in a cabinet or under the tub.
But the worst of it? The strangers that come in—those who say they’re Anthony’s caregivers. Those who say they’re Paul. Those, even, who come in and pretend to be Anne herself. What sort of trick are they trying to pull? Anthony knows what his own daughter looks like. Why, he can point to her picture right on that—
But where’s the picture? And who painted the wall?
The Father is a beautifully brutal portrait of dementia and the toll it takes not just on the one suffering from it, but on the aging man’s primary caregiver: his daughter.
Many of us know, too well, how much Alzheimer’s and dementia can take from loved ones. And many know the quiet heroism that comes with caring for someone suffering from the condition.
And, indeed, Anne is quietly heroic here. We see her suffer a great deal from her father’s slights and suspicions. When Anthony tells visitors that Anne is dull and tedious, she forces a smile and tries not to cry. When Anthony has lost one of his prized possessions, Anne does her best to calm her dad and find it for him. She’s always on call and ready to rush to her father’s side if something goes wrong, sacrificing her own freedom and happiness to do so. Sometimes she even sings him to sleep, as a mother would a baby.
But while Anthony can sometimes act monstrous, it’s not his fault. And just as we can see his cruelty, so sometimes we see flashes of kindness and gratitude.
As his mind deteriorates, he loses the capacity to even put on a sweater. When Anne gently helps him put it on, Anthony looks into her eyes in a moment of comprehension and clarity.
“Anne,” he says. “Thanks—for everything.”
Anthony seems initially smitten with his newest caregiver (a woman named Laura). “I say, you’re gorgeous,” Anthony tells her when he first meets her, and he holds her hand. He then proceeds to dance enthusiastically for Laura’s pleasure, telling her that he used to be a tap dancer. (It is, of course, not true.)
Anne is married, though that marriage ends in divorce somewhere along the way. We learn that she’s met someone else who lives in Paris, and she plans to move there to be with him.
In a scene in which Anne walks in on her sleeping father, she strokes his face gently and lovingly before moving her hands around his neck and squeezing, strangling him. It’s merely a brutal fantasy, though, one the film perhaps implies is shared by other equally weary and worn caregivers.
Paul, fed up with Anthony, slaps the confused, old man in the face several times.
[Spoiler Warning] Anthony talks frequently about his other daughter, Lucy, and how much he misses her. He wonders why she doesn’t visit more, but the truth is brutally simple: Lucy died in an accident years before. We see a brief flashback of her in the hospital, badly bruised and in a neck brace.
Two f-words, one s-word and a handful of uses of both “b–ch” and “t-ts.”
Characters drink wine and whiskey. Anthony swallows a glass of the latter in one gulp while extolling the virtues of his other, “favorite” daughter. Paul consumes a great deal of wine during one dinner, which may contribute to an unfortunate confrontation.
We hear quite a bit of talk about Anthony’s medications, and several people encourage him to take those pills.
“I must say, he’s charming,” caregiver Laura tells Anne when she first meets Anthony.
“Yeah, not always,” Anne says with a forced smile.
We see Anthony behave quite cruelly on occasion, especially toward Anne. “She’s not very bright,” he’ll tell someone as Anne looks on. “Not very intelligent. She gets that from her mother.” He accuses Anne of plotting against him and waiting for him to die so she can have his apartment. “I’m going to outlive you,” he bellows, telling caregiver Laura just how “heartless and manipulative” Anne is.
Anne is devastated and embarrassed by Anthony’s outburst, but Laura takes it in stride. “That sort of reaction is quite normal,” she says. But that doesn’t mean Anthony’s abuse is easy for even professionals to stomach. We learn that he’s chased off several—accusing them of stealing from him and being generally mean. And when Laura gently encourages him to take his medication (which she notes is a pretty shade of blue), he snaps at her, telling her not to talk to him as if he’s “retarded.”
As frustrating as this can be for those close to Anthony, it’s not really his fault. Dementia causes mood swings and lowers inhibitions and removes simple social decorum that most of us simply take for granted. And who wouldn’t get irate to see “strangers” traipse in and out of your home, apparently swiping things as they go?
Anthony’s condition causes him to lie on occasion, too; he claims at various points that he was both a dancer and a circus clown when he was younger.
We can lose our possessions, but no one can take away our memories.
So we tell ourselves as we spend time with loved ones and our money on family vacations, squirreling away precious, eternal moments at every turn.
But the cliché, we know, isn’t always true. Our memories can be taken from us. Our intelligence can, too. Our wit. Our very personality. Everything that makes us us can be torn slowly away, like pages in an old book, until all that’s left is the cover. A husk of who we were.
To me, this feels like one of life’s greatest and cruelest challenges, one that can even shake faith. God, we might pray, take from me my wealth, my health, my home … but leave me myself. Let, with my last breath, look into the eyes of those whom I love, and let them know that I love them, too. But for some, God does not grant this prayer. God is good, but His ways can be mysterious and hard.
The Father, of course, is a very sad movie, one that mercilessly marches through the realities of fading by inches. For those who are intimately acquainted with the subtle horrors of Alzheimer’s and dementia, the film might be especially hard.
But it might be welcome, too, for the film comes with its own bleak beauty It carries with it, perhaps, the tang of grief—all the sorrow and sadness and anguish and pain that great loss brings, but moments of strange sunlight in the darkness: Because in the midst of grief, love remains. Love goes on.
I am not myself, Anthony tells us in gesture and deed. But as the movie wears on, an important but comes about. I am not myself, it says, but I am worthy of love still. I care still—and need care. I am not myself, but I am still a beautiful thing—a beloved creation.
The Father features two incredible performances by previous Oscar winners Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman. And while it has some bursts of foul language and moments of shocking cruelty, the story is at its core a tender one, albeit sad and painful.
“I feel like I’m losing all my leaves,” Anthony confesses, “the branches in the wind in the rain.”
Even then—in his confusion and pain and helplessness, some truths still remain: The sun sometimes shines. Walks in the garden can still be pleasant. And he’s still cared for. He’s still loved. In his raging, growing darkness, there is still light.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.