The unfortunate virtuoso of The Dad, one of our Best Picture chosen people

 Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins in The Dad. Sony Pictures Works of art

This year, eight movies are in the running for Best Picture, the most esteemed honor at the Oscars. That is a ton of films to watch, examine, and appreciate! So a long time before the function on April 25, Vox staff members are taking a gander at every one of the candidates thus. What makes this film interesting to Institute electors? What makes it meaningful of the year? Also, would it be advisable for it to 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.

Florian Zeller 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.

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.