Film Review: My Father Die

A psychologically scarred man’s battle to rise above his family’s legacy of brutality drives this violent and sneakily moving story of toxic ties that bind.
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Teenager Chester Rawlings (Chester Rushing), who likes to strut around in a wolf skin, and his 12-year-old brother, Asher (Gabe White), have had a Mississippi upbringing shaped by fear and violence, courtesy of their biker dad Ivan’s (former U.K. boxer Gary Stretch) vicious temper and quick fists, along with the usual youthful sexual curiosity. All three converge when Chester takes his little brother to the home of free-with-her-favors Nana (Candace Smith), with an eye to showing Asher how men do things.

The lesson goes terribly wrong. Ivan-–who considers Nana his private property despite the fact that he’s still married to the mother of his children-–shows up unexpectedly and, in a paroxysm of rage, he beats Asher deaf and Chester to death. Ivan goes to jail and Asher, mute since losing his hearing, remains at home, poaching swamp game and looking after (understandably) his depressed, morbidly obese mom.

Two decades later, a local cop warns Asher (U.K. actor Joe Anderson, with the usual flawless American accent) and his mother that Ivan has been cut loose because of prison overcrowding. Asher isn’t looking for a crusade, but he knows that as sure as the sun rises, his father will be coming for revenge and that his options are binary: kill his daddy or be killed by him. Clad in sunglasses and Chester’s wolf pelt, he sets out to salvage whatever future may be left to him.

Much of My Father Die bears a striking resemblance to Robert Martin Carroll’s arrestingly loony Sonny Boy (1989), whose mute protagonist nonetheless narrates the story of his escape from a brutish family, as does the equally speechless Asher. In both films, the drama lies largely in the disparity between the narration—pitched in the tones of a man who hears himself in the voice of the child he was when he last spoke—and the baroque violence that envelops and shapes them.

The minute Asher learns that his father is free, he begins preparing for the inevitable showdown and much of the film is a deliberate—though never dull—countdown to the moment when the alpha dog and his rebellious pup go snout-to-snout. But first-time feature filmmaker Sean Brosnan—son of actor Pierce—gives his characters room to breathe and the cast, notably Anderson and Smith, rise to the occasion, bringing distinctive life to what could be swamp-thing stereotypes. Stretch’s Ivan, by contrast, is a force of primordial nature defined by muscle, tattoos and sheer meanness; the character isn’t nuanced (the closest thing he has to backstory is that he was in Vietnam), but Stretch makes him a genuinely frightening presence.

Like Sonny Boy, My Father Die’s mix of pulp violence and little stabs at happiness will not appeal to all audiences, but its mix of exploitation narrative and character-based grace notes make it stand out from the pack of violent movies about weird, creepy people you wouldn’t want to meet in real life.

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