Yes, we love our moms and dads, but lets face it, over the years, cinema has amassed a pretty unforgettable batch of wicked and awful parents. And so, it’s become somewhat of a Playlist tradition of late to examine and look at some of the more memorably monstrous ones (you can see our Mother’s Day feature here for example).
Today we celebrate the patriarchs who hopefully have raised us well and guided us in the right direction. What are your plans with Dad this Sunday? A game of catch? Some brats on the barbeque and brewskies in hand? Maybe a real heart-to-heart talk (or man-to-man if you’re Andy and Judge Hardy)? Between all of that and some real quality time with Pops in front of the TV (we recommend tuning in to TCM), you may want a break from the celebration of all that is great about fatherhood. If so, this is the list for you. If not, skip this and check out our list of 22 Great Father & Son Movies.
Whether you had Royal Tenenbaum or Atticus Finch for a father, today is his day. In the least, give the old man a ring for a stunted 30-second chat or a lecture about “when I was your age” topics. So what if he didn’t coach your Little League team or get you a lime-green VW bug for your Sweet 16 (darn MTV and high expectations) or remember one of your birthdays? At least he didn’t slice your hand off, break your arm and/or give you crippling alcoholism that will come back to haunt you while working on a murder case. In that spirit, let’s celebrate good old Dad with a few truly horrible fathers. If we’ve missed any of your favorites (or least-favorites), feel free to sound off in the comment section below.
James Coburn — “Affliction” (1998)
Having written some seminal works of cinema, “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” De Palma‘s “Obsession,” the cult revenge film, “Rolling Thunder,” Peter Weir‘s “The Mosquito Coast” and “The Last Temptation of Christ” to name a few, Paul Schrader’s career is largely defined as being a screenwriter. But his director’s body of work has outdone his writing work in terms of sheer volume. Fortune hasn’t been on his side of late, see the disaster that was “Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist,” the insanity that was “Adam Resurrected” (which admittedly is half awesome) and the controversy around “The Canyons.” But Schrader’s oeuvre that includes “Blue Collar,” “American Gigolo,” “Hardcore” and “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” is deeply underrated. One of his later era jewels is the 1997 drama “Affliction,” and it’s not an easy one to sit through. Like “The Place Beyond The Pines” recently, this is a fathers and sons story of legacy, sins and what we pass down to our children. But arguably, Schrader’s darker and bleaker film is much more emotionally brutal and bruising, as this tale shows the tragic consequences of passed down violence, alcoholism, and physical, emotional and verbal abuse. Nick Nolte plays a sheriff in a small town with too much time on his hands who has plenty of time to reflect on his nightmarish childhood. Inheriting his father’s alcoholism, history has repeated itself and he is also distant and callous to his wife and daughter who now despise him. While pursuing a murder case, Nolte is reunited with his movie family in the film, his monster of a father played by James Coburn and his younger brother (Willem Dafoe) who escaped his father’s abuse at a young age. The return of his abusive despot of a father for the funeral awakens a crippling emotional pain that only brings Nolte’s sheriff character closer to rock bottom and self-destruction. Searing and depressing as all get, “Affliction” is not for the faint of heart and if you can make it out of that film emotionally unscarred, you’re made of much stronger stuff than us. Coburn rightfully won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and is literally one of the most cruel and inhuman fathers ever committed to the big screen.
Rodney Dangerfield — “Natural Born Killers” (1994)
In Oliver Stone’s words, Ed Wilson (Rodney Dangerfield) is “the father from hell.” The character’s screen-time is less than five minutes, but it’s long enough to give us a bad case of the heebie-jeebies, still lingering nearly 20 years later. An emotionally, physically and sexually abusive father, Ed Wilson is a real monster, and considering his serial killer offspring, Mallory Knox (Juliette Lewis), that’s really saying something. The horror of Ed Wilson’s parenting is driven home by Stone’s choices to dub the vignette involving the Wilson family “I Love Mallory” and to set it to a sitcom laugh-track. This juxtaposition (spliced with some black-and-white close-ups) makes Ed Wilson threatening his wife (Edie McClurg) all the more off-putting and grabbing Mallory’s ass all the more gruesome. No wonder Mallory ran off with Mickey (Woody Harrelson), albeit to go on a killing spree, but at least she got out of her father’s greasy clutches. For all of Mallory’s faults and crimes, we can look back and see the roots in a depraved father and neglectful mother, or as Dangerfield said in a 1994 L.A. Times interview, “not every parent is as bad as me in the movie but in general, parents can hurt their kids without even knowing it.” Fun sidenote, Dangerfield also revealed that he wrote “all the filthy stuff” (e.g. “I’ll show her a little tenderness, after I eat. When I get up there, she won’t see my face for an hour.”). Now remember that the next time you watch “Caddyshack,” “Back To School,” or “Ladybugs” (shiver). So to show how grateful you are that your father hasn’t driven you to being a mass-murderer, nix the tie and get him that Ernest Hemingway audiobook set he’s been hinting at since you disappointed him for Christmas.
Dylan Baker — “Happiness” (1998)
“Divisive” is as good a word as any when talking about Todd Solondz‘s multi-stranded ensemble picture. “Happiness” won the FIPRESCI prize at Cannes, but Sundance refused to show it. Quentin Crisp dismissed it as “quite absurd,” but Roger Ebert named it his number five film of the year. The film is notable for many reasons; the critical and commercial high point of Solondz’s career, bringing Phillip Seymour Hoffman to wider attention (along with “Magnolia,” which he made directly afterwards) and as being one of the last truly daring movies of the Indie new wave of the 1990s, but it is one story that really sticks in the mind. Dylan Baker plays a suburban father who develops an obsession with a classmate of his son. When Johnny comes for a sleepover, Bill drugs Johnny and then sodomizes him while he is unconscious. Later he learns of another boy whose parents have left him home alone and drives over to rape him too, expressing no remorse for his actions. As it unfolds, seemingly out of nowhere, it’s utterly, utterly horrifying and it’s hard to believe that the movie you were just enjoying has taken such a sickening turn. One of the most blood-chilling aspects is the way Dylan Baker anchors the performance so resolutely in a kind of suburban, middle-management, sad-sack normalcy, so much so that many fans have never forgotten it, as the actor himself has acknowledged in subsequent interviews. There is no doubt that this Dad is a monster of the most horrendous kind but perhaps what is most troubling about him is the fact that this is not a man who stands out from the crowd, this is a guy who looks and sounds like your Dad’s friends or your work colleagues, and therefore you’d never see him coming.
Jack Nicholson — “The Shining” (1980)
Fancy a jaunt to the countryside with Dad? Oh, and you have the whole hotel to yourself? Nifty. What could possibly go wrong? An alcoholic with anger issues, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) was never going to win father of the year, especially after he somewhat-inadvertently broke his son Danny’s arm. But at least at the start of “The Shining,” Jack is trying to rehabilitate himself by giving up drinking, accepting a caretaker position at an empty, out-of-season resort, and tackling that book that he’s always wanted to write, all without outside distractions. Unfortunately, Jack didn’t account for the inside influences at the Overlook Hotel and its otherworldly inhabitants in particular. After a little too much time to himself, Jack take up drinking again, gets nowhere with that novel (“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”), and goes on an attempted killing spree with an axe (apparently the croquet mallet in Stephen King’s original novel wasn’t threatening enough). After chasing down his wife (Shelley Duvall), he stumbles on his son (Danny Lloyd), who screams, as any kid in his right mind would do at seeing a crazed axe-wielding Jack Nicholson. Rather than snapping out of it at the sight of his terrified son, Jack chases him down too, axe and all, only to be thwarted by getting stuck in the outdoor maze and freezing to death. Breaking his son’s arm, dragging his family to nowhere Colorado, trying to kill said family with an axe – yeah, he’s earned his place on this list, demons and all. In regards to your own Father’s Day — all emails and no phone calls make Dad a disappointed father.
Darth Vader — “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back” (1980)
“No, I am your father,” (almost always misquoted as “Luke, I am your father”) is one of the most famous lines in cinematic history for so many reasons, which we won’t go into for fear of upsetting our I.T. friends with inaccuracies. Suffice it to say that after ‘New Hope’ in which Darth Vader is the epitome of all that is dark in the force, no one saw it coming that he and the protagonist Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) were father and son. In the second installment of the first trilogy “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back,” the pair have a big lightsaber showdown. Finally, Luke has his chance to confront the man he believes to have killed his father. Unfortunately for him and for anyone with a heart condition, Darth Vader thinks that this would be the most appropriate time to tell him that he is indeed his father, remember this is just after he had sliced off Luke’s hand. No other time in Luke’s 20-odd years did Darth Vader think to himself, “Hey, maybe I should check in on him,” or wait, even just let him know that that Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is his sister, so maybe he should keep his hands off of her. With this lack of involvement, the scenario was a Greek tragedy in space, and made even creepier when the siblings kissed in that same episode. It wasn’t until “Return of the Jedi” that we discovered the unconventional family dynamic in the Skywalker household (or lack thereof). Even in a galaxy far far away, there are dads much much crappier than yours. — Diana Drumm, Rodrigo Perez, Kieran McMahon