The two most affecting performances of this year’s Sundance Film Festival features old men – one American, the other British – in denial of their growing dementia and fractured consciousness. There’s nothing quite as moving as the marriage of age and masculinity. The sight of physically vulnerable men refusing to accept the onset of mental vulnerability is sad for how they visibly, how cruelly and transparently, weakness infects those who have spent a lifetime demonizing the concept of weakness. No matter how despicable the men may have been in their time, most movies understand that it’s never easy to see naked kings in search of the thrones they once owned.
In both Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut Falling and French playwright Florian Zeller’s first film The Father, these men from a bygone era are proud and arrogant, funny and difficult, with adult children who are torn between indulging and tolerating them. But the language of fading memory is markedly distinct, as are the cultures of parenthood that precede it.
Falling acts as a testament to the fact that, in some cases, the only way to make peace with the contradictions of parent-child love is to let go
Falling literally employs the craft of cinema to convey the visual science of dementia: Flashes of the past, disorienting transitions, coherent details. Willis (Lance Henriksen), a farmer from the harsh Chicago countryside, detests the idea of having to adapt to his son John’s (Mortensen) urban Californian home. John, a gay Air Force pilot, lives with his partner and adopted daughter – a “lifestyle” that has long repelled hardened old bigots like Willis. Willis isn’t sure whether he is being punished for being a bad father or if he simply hates being dependent on the very people who had once broken free of him. Mortensen writes Willis as a nasty human being who is actually weaponizing his illness to provoke his son – he wants John to react, to break, to cry, to scream and engage, just like the sensitive kid who was bullied by his violent father. The entire film leads up to a confrontation, where you can sense that John regrets losing his (painstakingly constructed) cool with a man who, despite his unlettered behaviour, is merely an extinct beast struggling to express regret. It’s not so much about morality and mortality as it is about a parent confronting the datedness of his own failures. Willis’ senility – the brain fades, suppressed memories and abusive rants – elevates his son’s understanding of karma: It helps John embrace the fact that maybe some tortured monsters are destined to die alone. No bloodline or family duties can rescue them from their own bitter fate. Falling acts as a testament to the fact that, in some cases, the only way to make peace with the contradictions of parent-child love is to let go.
Florian Zeller’s adaptation of his own play, though, is more about the man than the legend. The Father is a chamber drama that uses the chamber itself to depict the direness of dementia. The entire film is shot in a London flat that keeps changing form and ownership and occupants and timelines in sync with the protagonist’s disoriented and decaying mind. Anthony Hopkins plays Anthony, a charming Englishman who wakes up one morning to be informed by his daughter Ann (Olivia Colman) that she is leaving for Paris. “For a man? But what will become of me?” he whines, in an ever-fluid tone that sways between juvenile rage and existential fear. Ann wants to hire a full-time caretaker for him, but Anthony keeps driving them away with his hostile and unpredictable behaviour. The new one reminds him of his younger daughter – a girl who he believes is travelling the world, while Ann’s perpetually pained face tells another story.
I’ve never quite seen a film that immerses its viewers into the psychotraumatic vagaries of dementia without resorting to visual effects, dreamy flashbacks or snazzy transitions. By messing with the geography of the apartment and the identities of its characters, The Father makes us see and digest and experience the frighteningly unsystematic loss of mental control. Hopkins’ performance, much like the one in The Two Popes, is a work of stone-cold genius for how it fuses the actor’s fragile self-awareness of his own ageing with his characters’ proud defiance of it. His gait is every child’s worst nightmare – there’s a simultaneous deer-in-headlights shock and bullish-patriarch hubris about his tone and body language that might appeal to anyone with ageing parents (and not just parents afflicted with illness). Every time he speaks, Hopkins reveals a spaced-out sharpness with his subtle changes of diction, as if he were constantly flitting between the surety of the past and the shakiness of the present. Unlike Willis, he doesn’t have the luxury of toxic rage to fall back on: Even when he is rude, there’s a hapless gentleness to it, almost like he wants to confirm that he still possesses the intellectuality of crabby wisdom.
At times Anthony reminded me of my own father, a man who often declines to waste the sharpness of his mind on the ordinariness of life. Both of them don’t mind the odd delusion or two to maintain belief in their own sanity. And both resist the twin expressions of doubt and abandonment to children who want to move forward in life without looking back. Who want to rise without halting to notice the falling and the fathers. Only later might it occur to us – flawed sons and daughters – that the film and its titles were always based on them.