“The Father”–A Patriarch’s Decline

The Father is  a devastating, disquieting journey into the horrors of dementia, both for the afflicted and for those who are close to the afflicted.    Artfully helmed by French playwright Florian Zeller in his directorial debut, Zeller invites the viewer into a breathtaking and  wrenching look at advancing dementia through both the individual frightened by what is happening and to the no-less-terrified family and caregivers. Watching a loved one die is always harrowing, but dementia makes it especially so, as the patient not only slips away mentally, but lashes out in angry and hurtful ways as they do so.  Given the increase in movies about an aging population susceptible to dementia and Alzheimer’s, The Father nonetheless breaks new ground.   

The main character, Anthony (the astonishing Anthony Hopkins),   is the  unreliable narrator, forcing the audience to see what he sees and try to make sense of that world. In a superb feat of writing, directing, and acting, The Father hurls the audience into the main character’s head with    time and space revealing a more constricting and often confusing perspective.  In doing so, The Father  conveys the full tragedy and vertiginous confusion of dementia. Anthony slowly unravels into  someone almost unrecognizable to himself and to his daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman). 

Without any spoilers, we see  the brilliant way The Father  communicates Anthony’s increasing inability to differentiate  his loved ones from strangers. The viewer feels as trapped in this small, shifting space as Anthony does. The present invades the past to the point where it’s nearly impossible to tell them apart. To that end, the timeline is critical: a missing watch, changes in apartment decor and furnishings symbolizing Anthony’s chronological undoing. Are his daughter and nurse playing cruel games on him?  The conflicting scenes offer a puzzle with no easy solution.  That, essentially, is the prison of Anthony’s mind.  And Anthony’s confusion is, in itself,  disorientating for the viewer.

First and foremost, Anthony Hopkins, –in his career-best performance,– is truly astonishing as a shattered, aging, and fragile  soul slowly surrendering to his mind as an enemy inside his body.  To play a man who’s begun to lose his mental faculties, Hopkins methodically peels away everything until there’s nothing left but frailty,  distress, and despair. 

Olivia Colman is the keystone to Hopkins, giving a sympathetic and equally heart-wrenching performance as the daughter undeserving of her father’s hurtful responses. Colman is also tasked with the unenviable role of the concerned daughter trying to balance parental love with her own  needs, without seeming cold and egotistical.  She never fails to deliver.

Fantastic work from both actors is sustained throughout the film, with sensitively interpreted, nuanced roles by the seasoned supporting cast, especially Rufus Sewell, Olivia Williams and Imogen Poots.

One day, everyone you know and love will die, the immutable truth we all carry  with us.  The inevitability of decay becomes a little harder to turn away from with every passing year. Rarely is the nature of death and dignity explored as terrifyingly andtenderly as it is in The Father.

With a profound sadness at its core , The Father is emotionally charged and upsetting, particularly in one of the last scenes.  You’ll think about The Father long after itends.

Note:  Both Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman have been nominated for Academy Awards this year for their performances.

“I Care a Lot”–Caregiver or Caretaker?

In this Netflix original movie, I Care a Lot, the highly successful court-appointed guardian, Marla Grayson (the astonishing Rosamund Pike of “Gone Girl” fame), masterminds a scheme to being appointed guardian of  wealthy elderly patients by the state court.   Marla is charged with  caring for the elderly who are identified by doctors as incompetent to manage their own health needs, daily living and assets.

Marla and her partner Fran (Eiza González) run a highly profitable hustle –a guardianship grift of elderly “wards of the state”.  To the judge who appoints her to be caregiver, she appears as highly professional, extraordinarily articulate, and convincing in asserting her qualifications. On first appearance, the onlooker sees a measured, seemingly trustworthy advocate for eldercare.    But underneath that veneer and polish, Marla is abusing a legal system by targeting wealthy seniors that actually aren’t incompetent,  throwing them in care facilities and assuming absolute control of their assets.  She understands this  system better than most: how she can manipulate (and sometimes) bribe doctors and the courts to her advantage,   essentially kidnapping the elderly, robbing them of  their assets, and separating them forever from their families.   She’s not a caregiver, not a caretaker.  She’s neither.  Marla’s an irresolute taker.

And then the “cherry”–Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest in an unforgettable performance)  is introduced to them by an unscrupulous physician.  A “cherry” is a very wealthy old person with no family or friends to look out for them, ready for the picking.  But,  unexpected trouble arises when Jennifer Peterson is not who she seems.  A very difficult “cherry” indeed.   The  predatory guardians, Marla and Fran, soon become the prey.

Unfortunately for Marla, Jennifer has an undisclosed and mysterious relationship with a powerful mobster (the delightfully malevolent Peter Dinklage from “Game of Thrones”) who will go to great lengths to protect Jennifer.  He releases her from Marla’s clutches.

It’s a stomach-churning ride with a lot of venom and dismay that people assigned to be guardians for the most vulnerable may get away with highly irregular, if not criminal behavior.   Resources are stretched allowing the court-appointed caregivers to  conceal bad acts  because they are  trusted.

They come in and steal under false pretenses and strip the victim of all credibility.   And Rosamund Pike’s and Peter Dinklage’s twitchy, angry staggering performances menace one another in a vicious death spiral. Until the very end of I Care a Lot the viewer is treated to unexpected twists and turns, in one traumatic scene after another.

What is most unsettling about I Care a Lot , however, is the picture it presents of eldercare:  Just park them, rob them, and then move on to the next one.  What seems like a  con game — a gangster’s operation–is taking advantage of loopholes in the law.  Watching Marla game the system to her own ends is far from comforting.  The viewer has to ask:  Is this amoral predator behavior really widespread?  Is the eldercare/guardianship system  susceptible  to people like Marla and Fran to manipulate? Do some guardians stretch the rules as far as they possibly can?

Make sure your parents and grandparents are protected at all costs!  I Care a Lot  is a cautionary tale for all of us!

Availability:  On Netflix streaming and Golden Globe-nominated for a best film.