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If you went to a movie near the end of the 20th century, you might have left the theater with a skewed sense of reality. There were a ton of films, like Fight Club, The Usual Suspects, and The Sixth Sense, with twist endings and elastic narratives. Two decades later, The Father is one of those films, except the twist comes in every scene. It’s the story of a man, Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), careening towards the late stages of dementia. His memory, both short- and long-term, is failing him. He doesn’t recognize his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) sometimes. He forgets whose apartment he’s living in. Certain conversations seem to repeat themselves, but with different players. His reality is folding in on itself like an Escher drawing.
But it’s no glib narrative experiment. The Father probes the experience of having dementia with curiosity and compassion. We initially see it all through Anne’s eyes; she has agreed to let her father stay at her place after he fired his last caretaker. Anne’s husband (Rufus Sewell) barely tolerates Anthony’s presence, but she tries to create a sense of normalcy. Colman is tremendous here, displaying cascading layers of emotion: the false cheeriness she puts on for her dad, the sadness struggling to burst through, and the electric flashes of primal hurt.
Inevitably, though, Hopkins takes over. We follow Anthony around the house as he meets with his new caretaker (Imogen Poots), quarrels with Anne’s husband, and mostly tries to make sense of his surroundings. As a man drifting in and out of different realities, Hopkins demonstrates the full range of his talents and creates a complete picture of a life. Like the young rapscallion he once was, he tries to charm the caretaker, dancing sprightly around the apartment for her benefit. When confused, he releases a rush of anger that could frighten any receiver. “I’m not leaving this flat anytime soon,” he tells his daughter at the first mention of moving him to a home. “I’m going to outlive you.” When his confusion gives way to terror, he reverts back to childhood. I don’t know how he does it, but there are moments when the 83-year-old Hopkins actually looks like a child.
His biggest task, however, is to hold the audience’s hand as they wander along with him in and out of realities, timelines, and worlds. Anthony’s apartment is like a hall of mirrors. The decor changes on a whim. Different actors are used to play the same character, while one actor might be used to play multiple roles. In one haunting scene, Anthony seems to be stuck in a time loop, with a particularly traumatic conversation ending right back at its beginning. Anthony tries so hard to never let his daughter, son-in-law, or caretaker know how confused he is. Hopkins reveals it to us without revealing it to them. It’s one of the most riveting performances you’ll ever see.
Unlike those mindwarp films of the late 1990s, however, The Father never totally resolves its realities. Even by the revealing final scene, it may not be entirely clear to the viewer what was real and what wasn’t. It’s a testament to the direction by first-timer Florian Zeller, adapting his own play, who conducts a symphony of moving parts, creating confidence in the viewer that he knows where all the pieces are going, even if we don’t. From the elegant natural lighting to the insistent, droning score—like a fly buzzing near your head or a word on the tip of your tongue—the parts of The Father work in perfect concert and support its jaw-dropping performance, which will break your heart while the film blows your mind.
The Father opens in some theaters Friday, Feb. 26 and on VOD March 26.