The man known as "The Father" doesn't recognize his surroundings or the people around him and he's not always sure who he is. That sounds like the setup of a horror movie, except for this: He's in his own apartment, the people are his loved ones and he has severe memory loss.
You could argue "The Father" is a horror movie. Anthony Hopkins gives a monumental performance as Anthony, who's alternately friendly, cajoling, lost, angry and frightened as he shifts from brief periods of awareness to bafflement.
It's harrowing to watch because Hopkins' acting, which is like nothing we've seen him do, feels so attuned to what it might be like to not be able to trust one's self from moment to moment. We constantly see the gears clicking for a smart man who can't rely on his intelligence anymore. That Anthony has such an ideal situation — he has tons of money (which is annoying but whatever), his loved ones are helpful and he has dedicated caregivers — and yet his life is still so difficult makes "The Father" even more distressing.
Writer/director Florian Zeller based the movie on his play, which St. Paul's Gremlin Theater staged persuasively two years ago. It's the same piece, mostly designed to make us feel like we're in Anthony's mind as people vanish or seem to change identity, but Zeller has rethought it for the movies. He has abandoned the bleak humor of the play and leaned into the realism of film, letting us in on the story's secrets earlier (in the play, we don't understand for quite a while what's going on with the main character). If the result isn't quite as poetic as the stage version, it is even more intimate and devastating.
Obviously, words like "harrowing" and "devastating" do not scream, "How much popcorn will I need?" It's not an easy movie to watch but what makes it beautiful, as well as terrifying, is its precision. It's the bravery with which Anthony's daughter (Olivia Colman) uses cheer in an attempt to keep him tethered to the present; the way Imogen Poots has her health care worker character split the difference between guiding Anthony back to reality and playing along with his delusions; the contemplative/intense score by Ludovico Einaudi, whose music is also in "Nomadland."
All of these elements contribute to a sense that the artists respect the places their characters find themselves in. As his zany Twitter posts indicate, Hopkins is doing quite well in real life, but the subtle performers (in addition to Hopkins, Colman and Poots, Olivia Williams plays a mystery woman) have done the emotional work to suggest what it might be like to have a loved one in this painful situation.
You feel like you've been through something with "The Father," that it's honest and that it understands how these characters — and perhaps the rest of us — might behave.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367
⋆⋆⋆½ out of four stars
Rating: PG-13, for strong language.
Theater: Wide release (streaming March 26).