Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut features Lance Henriksen as an angry patriarch grappling with dementia
Dir/scr: Viggo Mortensen. Canada/UK. 2020. 112 mins
A father/son relationship is marked by pain, rancour and a lifetime of mutual disappointment in Falling. Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut is an earnest family drama etched in jagged memories and an elegant waltz between past and present. His sensitive handling of the material creates a quietly affecting reflection on the ties that bind and provides an unusually juicy role for Lance Henriksen as the belligerent, bile-spewing patriarch.
Mortensen’s own performance is as understated as the film
Dedicated to his brothers Charlie and Walter, Falling feels a very personal project for Mortensen, addressing his own family history through a fictional story. Arthouse audiences should be drawn by Mortensen’s name, although the unrelenting nature of the father’s behaviour and Mortensen’s deliberately understated approach may make Falling a film that is admired rather than instantly embraced. The fact it made the selection in Sundance, Cannes, Toronto and San Sebastian will help it on its way.
We can see that the elderly Willis (Henriksen) is in the grip of dementia by his unruly behaviour on a flight to California. Accompanied by his son John (Mortensen), he has travelled from his farm in upstate New York to explore the possibility of moving closer to his family. He wanders the aisles, angry and lost, pilfering a drink from a fellow passenger, shouting at ghosts and trying to smoke in the toilets. John placates and calms him, his desire to avoid a messy scene perhaps indicative of the way they have always been together.
Willis no longer distinguishes between past and present. People long dead are alive to him, old betrayals feel like fresh grievances. A raging, gleeful Henriksen does nothing to soften a splenetic character mired in bitterness and determined to provoke. A sexist, racist dinosaur, he takes particular delight in disparaging his son’s homosexuality. John lives with his husband Eric (Terry Chen) and their daughter Monica (Gabby Velis). Willis constantly niggles and criticises, calling Eric “the boyfriend”, mixing up his nationality, dragging up stories designed to humiliate his son. “Your father used to shit the bed and that’s a lot worse than wetting it,” he reassures Monica.
Falling is marbled with flashbacks and there is some deft editing by Ronald Sanders as an image or thought transports Willis into his past. Sverrir Gudnason gives the film’s best performance as the younger Willis, a more nuanced, sympathetic figure who has a gruff fondness for his baby son ( “my little stinker”) and wife Gwen (Hannah Gross). You feel a more immediate connection to him than Henriksen’s commanding but slightly one-note Willis and must assume that over time paranoia, jealousy and a constant feeling of betrayal have shaped him into this impossible old man.
Mortensen works hard to win our understanding of the father. Poetic scenes of changing seasons on the ranch, beloved horses, creatures and wildlife show a softer side to the older Willis who seems more at one with nature than he ever is with any human being.
Laura Linney makes a brief appearance as John’s younger sister Sarah, a woman walking on eggshells around her father. David Cronenberg appears as a genial proctologist. Mortensen’s own performance is as understated as the film, making John a dutiful son of almost saintly patience straining every sinew to avoid confrontation. Scenes in which he finally lets rip are all the more effective for his earlier restraint.
Production companies: Perceval Pictures, Scythia Films, Zephry Films, Achille Productions, Ingenious Media
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Producers: Viggo Mortensen, Daniel Bekerman, Chris Curling
Editing: Ronald Sanders
Cinematography: Marcel Zyskind
Production design: Carol Spier
Music: Viggo Mortensen
Main cast: Lance Henriksen, Viggo Mortensen, Terry Chen, Sverrir Gudnason, Laura Linney