The enduring appeal of “mad dad” movies.
Who’s your daddy? Is he Liam Neeson’s retired CIA man in Taken, who’ll punch, shoot, and electrocute his way to your rescue if you’re kidnapped by sex traffickers? Or is he Michael Shannon’s construction worker in Take Shelter, so convinced of an imminent stormageddon that he’ll devote all his energies to building an underground hideout for you and your mom? Or maybe he’s Viggo Mortensen’s post-apocalypse papa in The Road, who’ll keep you safe from marauding cannibals and give you what may be the very last can of Coke on Earth.
All three of those screen fathers are what could be classified as “mad dads”: men whose anger is roused by threats to their loved ones, and who’ll go to any lengths to protect or rescue them. Their behaviour may be extreme—or, in the case of Shannon’s character, quite possibly literally mad—but there’s something about seeing those raw paternal instincts in action that can move us as audience members. Certainly, it’s part of the primal appeal of 2008’s Taken, which overcame a lukewarm critical reception to become a surprise hit (its inevitable sequel, Taken 2, opens this Friday).
These movies act as an antidote to the more prevalent image of fatherhood perpetuated by mainstream film and television. You know, the one in which pop is a fun-loving, immature stumblebum, adorable even when he’s being mercilessly satirized (see: Homer Simpson). While the mad dads have their foibles, when it comes to the crunch, they’re super-competent, if not near-superhuman, guardians and defenders. But while they may be preferable to the doofus dads, they also reinforce the older stereotype of the two-fisted macho chauvinist.
Taken is the most basic of these films. It even has a great generic tagline, delivered with measured menace by Neeson’s Bryan Mills to his daughter’s kidnappers, “I will look for you, I will find you, I will kill you,” that could serve as the motto for many a mad dad. Indeed, for the raging Roman played by Anthony Hopkins in Titus, Julie Taymor’s 1999 film of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, the words need only be altered to: “I will find you, kill you, then bake your heads into a pie and feed it to your mother!” Yes, some of these crazed patriarchs take the revenge thing a little too far.
Not every father is so quick with the violence. Sam Bowden, the lawyer played by Gregory Peck in 1962’s Cape Fear (and by Nick Nolte in Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake), tries to avoid a physical confrontation with Max Cady (Robert Mitchum/Robert De Niro), the ex-con terrorizing him and his family. But when he’s pushed to the limit, it unleashes the beast within. Of course, dads aren’t the only ones who bear their fangs under pressure (think of Jodie Foster’s cornered mother in Panic Room), but movies with “mad moms” are comparatively rare.
While rescuing or avenging your kids is a great motivator, it can also lead to eye-opening and sometimes transformative experiences. Like Mel Gibson’s cop unearthing a corporate conspiracy in 2010’s Edge of Darkness, or Jack Lemmon’s naïve businessman discovering covert U.S. involvement in Chile’s military coup in 1982’s Missing. Other fathers learn as much as they teach: Mortensen’s ragged pilgrim in The Road (2009) imparts survival skills to his young son, but in the end the boy shows him that, if civilization is also to survive, self-interest must be balanced with compassion.
Ah, yes, compassion. That’s not something these mad dads show a lot of. Being a fierce protector may be a laudable paternal trait, but it’s not necessarily the best one. In fact, one of the movies’ greatest father figures actually puts his offspring in harm’s way.
The same year that he starred in Cape Fear, Gregory Peck played another besieged lawyer: Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. As screen dads go, Atticus is among the most beloved for his courage, kindness, and belief in justice for all. But when, in racist 1930s Alabama, he chooses to defend a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, he runs the risk of a retaliatory attack against himself and his two children. That would seem to make him irresponsible, but in reality he’s showing his kids that some causes are worth such risks. And when he stands up to the bullies, he does it without ever punching, shooting, or electrocuting anyone. Now that’s a real father.