Friday Night Seitz
Slide show: In honor of Father's Day, we count down the nastiest patriarchs ever to hit the big screen
10. Dwight Hansen, “This Boy’s Life” (1993)
Played by: Robert De Niro
Young Toby Wolff, the sensitive hero of “This Boy’s Life,” wonders what his mother could possibly see in Dwight Hansen, the super-macho, domineering goon who is about to become his new stepdad. If only he could be a fly on the wall in his mom’s bedroom. “You can get it doggy-style or you can get it laying on your side,” he tells her. “Those are your only choices. This is my house and I get to say. Got it?” Hello, Prince Charming!
“Here I am, you lucky people!” Dwight exclaims. Indeed! Who couldn’t love this tinpot dictator, who wears a Boy Scout troop leader’s uniform with the smug brio of a Gestapo commandant, and lights his cigarettes with an elaborate little series of ritual gestures that make him seem like an effete cyborg manufactured in the same plant as the Terminator? How can you not love the open-minded way that Dwight engages others in debate (“Shut your pie hole!”), or the nickname he bestows on his stepson (“Little Jackie Wolff!”), or the positivity that he brings to the sacred calling of fatherhood? “I believe there is such a thing as a bad boy, bad clear through. It’s gonna be my job to set you straight,” he tells Toby. “That’s right, to kill or cure. Kill or cure!”
9. Ed Wilson, “Natural Born Killers” (1994)
Played by: Rodney Dangerfield
Mallory Wilson, the mass murderer heroine of “Natural Born Killers,” is proof that the apple never falls far from the tree. Her father, seen in calculatedly hideous flashback sequences scored with sitcom-style music and canned laughter, is a horrendous lout, sexist and profane and intimidating, a man who jokes casually about beating his wife and molesting his daughter and crudely manhandles them both. The way that he gropes Mallory suggests that when Ed jokes about having his way with her, he’s not speaking hypothetically. He’s a profane, sweaty, bug-eyed gargoyle of a man, proud of his nastiness and secure in the knowledge that he’s king of his domestic castle. Patricide has rarely seemed so defensible.
8. Bill Maplewood, “Happiness” (1998)
Played by: Dylan Baker
Outwardly he’s just a milquetoast suburban psychiatrist with a wife and three kids, but Bill Maplewood has a secret, second life: He’s a pedophile. Also a hopeless romantic. Put the two together and you’ve got one sick, twisted individual.
The most riveting and horrifying subplot in Todd Solondz’s ensemble drama “Happiness” finds Maplewood falling madly in love with Johnny Grasso, an 11-year-old friend of his son. When Johnny comes over for a sleepover, Bill gives him a tuna sandwich laced with a sedative and sodomizes him in his sleep. Later, Bill discovers that another young boy is home alone while his parents are in Europe, and drives to the boy’s house and rapes him, too. Bill later admits that he enjoyed violating Johnny Grasso and would do it again if he had the chance. “Would you f–k me?” Bill’s son asks him. “No,” Bill replies, “I’d jerk off instead.” Eat your heart out, Ward Cleaver.
7. Brad Whitewood Sr., “At Close Range” (1986)
Played by: Christopher Walken
“Is this the family gun, Dad?” asks Brad Whitewood Jr., pointing a pistol at his dad, Brad Sr.
You better believe it. Brad Sr., the head of a would-be criminal empire of tractor thieves in rural Pennsylvania, is a live-by-the-gun type of guy. He’s a trickster, a manipulator, charming and smooth. “Most people who drive through here see farms,” he says, cruising through the landscape. “Houses, and fields, and shit. I see money, I see things. Everything’s got my name writ on it!”
Brad Sr. gives his aimless son Brad Jr. and Brad’s equally troubled kid brother, Tommy, a place to put their energy. Unfortunately it’s the sort of outlet that will land them in jail or in the ground. When Brad Jr. goes freelance and starts his own criminal gang, Brad Sr. worries that he’s going to rat him out, so he rapes Brad Jr.’s girlfriend Terry as a warning. “The answer is no!” she cries. “I ain’t asking,” he says. The rape pushes the crime boss’ son even further away and gives him impetus to go to the authorities. How does Brad Sr. respond? Why, the way any loving dad would: He hatches a plot to violently eliminate everyone close to him who might provide indictable information to the grand jury, sons included. Being a hands-on sort of guy, he executes his younger son, Tommy, personally. The really horrifying thing about Brad Sr.’s evil deeds is that none of them are personal. They’re all about business and self-protection. He lectures his sons on the importance of blood, but when push comes to shove, he’s happy to spill it.
6. Jack Torrance, “The Shining” (1980)
Played by: Jack Nicholson
I almost thought about leaving Jack Torrance off this list because, like Bill Maplewood in “Happiness,” he’s not so much evil as weak; he’s a recovering alcoholic driven mad by isolation at the Overlook Hotel, where he’s serving as winter caretaker while trying to write a book and make amends to his wife, Wendy, and their young son, Danny, whom Jack abused. Plus, the whole place is haunted by spirits. There are intimations that Jack is possessed by evil, or that whatever latent evil he has inside of him is being drawn out by circumstances. But let’s face it: Judged purely on his actions, Jack Torrance is, like Bill Maplewood, a horrible dad pretty much any way you, um, slice it. There is no aspect of Jack’s behavior that one could hold up as an example of the right way to be a father, a husband or a human being. At the start of the story, he’s an emotional basket case, and by the end, he’s a homicidal loon.
“I’m very confused, and I just need time to think things over!” his wife, Wendy, exclaims tearfully, wielding a bat as a completely insane Jack advances on her. “You’ve had your whole fucking life to think things over,” he snarls, “what good’s a few minutes more gonna do you now?” “Please! Don’t hurt me!” “Wendy? Darling? Light of my life. I’m not gonna hurt ya. You didn’t let me finish my sentence … I said, I’m not gonna hurt ya. I’m just going to bash your brains in. Gonna bash ‘em right the fuck in!“
5. The Rev. Harry Powell, aka Preacher, “Night of the Hunter” (1955)
Played by: Robert Mitchum
“There are things you do hate, Lord. Perfume-smellin’ things, lacy things, things with curly hair,” proclaims the Rev. Harry Powell, phony preacher, widow seducer, and coldblooded killer. This charismatic thug with the “love” and “hate” tattoos on his knuckles is nobody’s biological father — at least nobody we hear about — but he’s an evil father figure to the two children whose mother he seduces and kills. Ben spends the entire film looming over the children’s lives like a specter, glowering at them and reminding them of their powerlessness and ultimate doom. His sickness is palpable; you can practically sense it pouring off the screen, especially when he’s delivering supposedly sage advice or launching into monologues about how the universe works. “I can hear you whisperin’, children, so I know you’re down there,” he says, tracking his prey. “I can feel myself gettin’ awful mad. I’m out of patience, children. I’m coming to find you now.”
4. Grandpa, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974)
Played by: John Dugan
Everybody remembers Leatherface, the chainsaw-wielding monstrosity who chases hapless teenagers through the woods in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” But could we pause for a second and give proper credit for his existence, and the existence of the entire extended, nontraditional clan of butchering, flesh-eating killers?
You get a glimpse of Grandpa in the film’s squirm-inducing dinner table scene, which gathers the “family” and their victims around a big table and wheels out the sluggish and seemingly almost brain-dead old man for a token appearance. At most family gatherings, the eldest male gets to carve the meat, but around these parts, they practice a different version of patriarchal tribute: They give Grandpa a hammer and urge him to bludgeon the movie’s kidnapped heroine, Sally, to death. The family that slays together …
3. Noah Cross, “Chinatown” (1974)
Played by: John Huston
“You’ve got a nasty reputation, Mr. Gittes,” Noah Cross tells Jake Gittes, the detective hero of “Chinatown.” “I like that.” This horrible tycoon is a fusion of the 1890s editorial page caricature of a robber baron capitalist and Satan himself. Cross figuratively or literally violates everything he touches. He rapes most of Southern California via an elaborate land-grab scheme. He rapes his own daughter, Evelyn Mulwray, and impregnates her with her daughter, Katherine. He murders Evelyn’s husband by drowning him in the pond behind his house. And after Evelyn gets killed in a freak shooting, he takes Katherine away and promises to take very good care of her — and he looks very, very happy about it. “You see, Mr. Gittes,” Cross says, “most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything.” Scratch that “right time, right place” part and the statement describes Noah Cross perfectly.
2. Darth Vader, aka Anakin Skywalker, the “Star Wars” saga, 1977-2005
Played at different stages by: Hayden Christensen, David Prowse and James Earl Jones, and Sebastian Shaw
Some people aren’t cut out to be dads. Anakin Skywalker is unquestionably one of them. When his unborn twin children, Luke and Leia, were still in their mother Padme’s womb at the end of “Episode III: Revenge of the Sith,” the whiny, lethally snippy Anakin tried to kill her in plain view of his best friend Obi-Wan. Years later, while acting as a right-hand man to his master, Emperor Palpatine, he oversaw the destruction of his then-teenage daughter Leia’s adopted homeworld, Alderaan, with the Empire’s new super weapon, the Death Star, then tortured Leia to make her reveal the location of the rebel base. Despite his supposed sensitivity to the faintest tremors in the force, it never occurred to Anakin that this young woman was his daughter, or that the young starpilot who destroyed the Death Star was his son. Dude’s not just evil; he’s clueless, too.
And what did Anakin do when he figured out that Luke was his son? He kidnapped and tortured Luke’s best friend, Han Solo, to lure Luke into a confrontation at Cloud City, then let a bounty hunter freeze Han into a giant carbonite popsicle and deliver him to the gangster who wanted him dead. Then he chopped off Luke’s hand in a lightsaber duel and ordered him to join the dark side or be destroyed. The final chapter of the series, “Return of the Jedi,” finds this rotten patriarch treating Luke’s inadvertent disclosure of Leia’s existence (“Sissss-ter!!!!”) not as a consciousness-realigning moment, but as a means of drawing his son out of hiding. No Father’s Day card for you, you wheezing, mass-murdering bastard.
When Anakin has a last-minute change of heart and kills the emperor to stop him from zapping Luke to death with Sith lightning bolts, the act is presented as a good-faith gesture sufficient to earn Anakin the right to observe the rebels’ victory celebration in spirit, alongside the ghosts of Obi-Wan and Yoda. But when you consider Anakin’s lifelong neglect and abuse of his family — not to mention the untold millions of deaths he caused — it seems a pitifully small gesture of atonement. If one good deed cancels out a lifetime of pure evil, The Force sucks.
1. John Milton, “The Devil’s Advocate” (1997)
Played by: Al Pacino
How is John Milton a bad dad? Well, for starters — spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t seen this 14-year-old movie — he’s Satan, prince of hell, instigator of all manner of misfortune and horror. Which is pretty much a guarantee of bad fatherhood, as well as automatic certification that this guy is more evil than anyone else on our list, including Darth Vader.
More specifically, though, Milton is one of those bad fathers who sires a son, Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves), has almost nothing to do with him for years upon years, then suddenly waltzes back into his life, charms him, and turns him into a prot
Every Friday, Salon writer Matt Zoller Seitz sifts through beloved classics and obscure indies for a slide show that sheds light on the hidden connections and most fascinating moments in film and TV history.