Dad, if you’re reading this, I love you. I feel like everyone should know that at the top of this month’s Make the Case. None of the movies featured here, or even my larger interest in movies about awful parents in general, reflect my actual relationship with my dad.
Yet stories that set forth a chain of events inspired by the poor choices of a single human being are always going to be interesting to me. Generational stories have something inherent in them that drives me to watch them.
And while movies with good parenting are fine, and essential in their own way, the dads who are immoral, utterly incompetent, selfish, or some of the combination of the three tend to have, at least to me, the more interesting possibilities for telling a story.
So, this month, I’m coming up with 5 of my favorite movies in which a trash fire of a father is either a major character, a significant plot point, or just some intangible quality that speaks to my weird brain. These movies are not ranked, and I’m probably not even going to put them in chronological order. This is just a playlist that works for me for this particular subject.
Fair warning: If your dad was particularly crappy, I can’t guarantee any of these movies will help. In fact, they might make you feel worse. I’m not going to go out of my way to do that, but I wouldn’t want to presume your litmus for this sort of thing.
5. The Godfather Part II (1974)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
I know, I know, it’s pretty hard to pick just one movie where Michael Corleone is an absolute failure as a father. Still, if we had to rank the sins of this particular father, I’d say murdering your children’s uncle would probably come out on top.
I have no doubt that Michael Corleone loves his children. His sorrow in Part III’s conclusion is proof of that. However, as most of us will agree, love is almost never enough.
You can make the argument that Michael, forced to take on the leadership role in his organized crime, is a largely sympathetic figure throughout the first Godfather. His ruthlessness, coupled with an obsession with the shadow cast by his father, makes life, at best, intensely difficult for those around him.
The Godfather Part II unquestionably has the moment in which Michael loses his soul. The fallout from that would bring immeasurable suffering to his children, as well.
4. There Will Be Blood (2007)
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Another man who burns through the minimum of goodwill he generates through sympathy, Daniel Plainview and Daniel Day-Lewis playing him is a horrific transformation to watch.
Particularly as we have no choice, but to watch Plainview destroy one of the few things in life, besides oil, real estate, or besting his opponents, that he truly loved. I have no doubt Daniel Plainview loves the boy who was essentially dropped in his lap as an infant.
Nonetheless, Plainview is helpless against his very driving sickness. This is the “competition” he speaks of. He has consumed without pause, and has destroyed everything that ever got in his way. In his final years, he is angry, exhausted, and incapable of anything but chomping at anyone foolish enough to go near him.
For me, one of the many tragic threads of There Will Be Blood is watching a son say goodbye to a father. Completely destroyed by greed and fear.
3. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Director: Wes Anderson
Few directors are as interested in deeply flawed fathers as Wes Anderson seems to be. That’s not a knock on him, because it’s led to amazing performances from some of the most memorable actors in recent history.
Most of these flawed fathers are, by and large, fairly redeemable. That doesn’t change the fact that all of them are objectively awful at being parents, particularly Royal Tenenbaum, in The Royal Tenenbaums, as played by Gene Hackman.
Royal eventually redeems himself, although without really ever doing anything except being extremely honest, and giving his poor estranged wife (Anjelica Huston, in one of her best roles) the divorce she wants and clearly deserves.
Hackman plays Royal with considerable charm, which is particularly impressive since he had an absolutely miserable time being in this movie. Even so, this fact does not change just how impressively shitty he was at being a dad.
Pretty good grandfather though. I guess.
2. Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966)
Director: Harold P. Warren
Although relatively lighter in execution, if not tone, than some of the other movies on this list, Manos: The Hands of Fate, one of the most infamously bad movies ever made, is absolutely horrifying.
A family finds themselves locked in a bizarre, sometimes nonsensical (writer, director, and star Harold P. Warren made this movie on a bet) bid for survival against a cult leader, his uniquely-deformed, madman of an assistant, his charming standard cult leader wives, and, well, I guess, an entity known as Hands, the Hands of Fate.
Among its many, uhm, memorable features, Manos includes one of the worst fathers in movie history. Seriously. This guy gets his wife, daughter, and dog lost in the badlands, displaying an almost supernatural inability to operate a motor vehicle. From there, his stupidity lands them at the house of the cult leader (known as The Master) and his wacky friends, and then proceeds to doom them all.
In any other context, the degree of incompetence Warren brings to his father character would have to be confined to a sitcom.
Also, in case you’re interested, Jackey Raye Neyman Jones, who plays Warren’s poor kid, has become the keeper of all things Manos. As of this writing, she is working on crowdfunding for a series that would continue the story of her character from the film.
1. The Stepfather (1987)
Director: Joseph Ruben
With elements of pitch-black comedy for good measure, the 1987 classic The Stepfather established Terry O’Quinn as a go-to for unnerving personalities. Something mysterious, often sinister follows many, but not all, of O’Quinn’s most memorable characters.
In the case of Jerry Blake, a mass murderer who marries into families, and then destroys them when they fail to reach his impossible ideal, that sinister quality is absolutely terrifying. O’Quinn creates a character who is equally monstrous, pitiful, and sometimes comically unhinged. It covers a surprisingly wide spectrum from an entertainment standpoint, and it establishes Blake as one of the worst fathers in movie history.
Even if he never had his own children.
By and large, stepfathers do not seem to do very well in movie depictions. That’s a shame. There are lots of good stepdads out there. The one I call dad has proven that to me over the years, even after I saw this movie shortly after he married my mom.
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