Viggo Mortensen’s Falling is a gem of a film that addresses many profound subjects. Mortensen has played memorable characters in his career, but this is his first work as a director. The charismatic Eastern Promises star’s strong debut as a director leaves a mark like the Russian tattoos he bore in that very film. The love, though it takes endurance to get to that warm emotional conclusion, is achieved by his casting of Lance Henriksen as Willis, his cognitively failing, bigoted, homophobic father now is in his time of need with his children was cinematic brilliance.
The role of Willis sets Lance Henriksen up to be considered for every major award possible. Henriksen is perfect in every aspect of his unlikeable character, and he will rip your heart out. Mortensen delivers a biographically tinged film that holds up a mirror to mortality. The film at the beginning reminds us that we all will die. Everyone’s journey to that end game is filled with beauty and sadness, abuse and adoration, and most of all—at least in Viggo’s case—an appreciation for your family, warts and all.
To fully understand Falling you should know that Mortensen lost his larger-than-life world traveler father in 2017. Viggo’s father had several wives, and in the course of raising his sons, introduced other maternal role models to them after he had divorced Viggo’s mother. The film is dedicated to Viggo’s two brothers, and one can surmise that there were likely some difficult days for the siblings growing up amidst the traveling, stepmothers and living all over the world during different parts of their lives.
John, Willis’ only son, has a lifestyle that does not sit well with his father. Yet despite his father’s insults and bigoted railings, John knows the complexity of WIllis, a man who taught him to hunt, and to be self sufficient. John lives across the country with his husband Eric (Terry Chen), and their daughter Monica (Gabby Velis), who adores her politically incorrect, inappropriate grandfather despite his inserting one foot after another into his mouth. The feeling is mutual.
Mortensen’s eye as a director is reflective in his artistic bent and deeply aware persona of emotional life. He inhabits the characters he has taken on as an actor. Viggo is a true multimedia artist, and his reflection of this seasonal slice of life we all will face if we live long enough represents a cathartic look at loving the sinner, forgiving all trespasses and being honest in reflection of a life not so well lived.
Willis is too old to change and John knows this. As the film progresses, Willis goes too far and John finally lets him have it in an emotionally charged scene. It’s hard to reverse roles inside a family. Willis is now the child and John is the parent. It is a fractious and volatile transition for both men.
The female aspect of this film is in the edges, the flashbacks of mother Gwen, the delightful scenes stolen by the adorable granddaughters, both John’s daughter and his sister Sarah’s (played so touchingly by Laura Linney) wizened teenage daughter. Sarah, as a child, was persona non grata to Willis who was an objectifier and had little interest in any women, save for sex.
This is an important film, as it allows the viewer to work out their own familial demons in their mind, and perhaps imagine the season of transition when a parent must be taken care of in some form or fashion. Mortensen captures that fleeting seasonal theme in stunning shots of nature, the farm, Los Angeles and the changing look of the land as time passes.
Captured in the patina of the film is the sense of great loneliness conveyed by John made clear in flashbacks to his childhood. He was a very intelligent and curious child who eventually became unsure of his sexuality, later in life. We see that John is a “tribe of two” and in tune with his mother Gwen (Hannah Gross). Gwen is married to an awful, withdrawn, hard drinking man (young Willis is portrayed by Sverrir Gudnason) who without hammering the point, has likely strayed in their marriage and been emotionally and verbally abusive over time.
Young John is a sponge and he absorbs these hurts and emotions as they linger unseen in the air. John also withdraws, and is unsure and unable to make things right in the fractured family life slightly terrorized by Willis. We find out that Willis is also a victim, hardened in the regressive times he was raised, and suffering at the hands of an abusive, cold father. The stepmother that comes into play for John and Sarah is Jill (Bracken Burns), who is paid respect in retrospect by Sarah as a woman who was an outsider in this family dynamic until these two adult children realized her level of love and caring for them, revealed in small poignant acts over time. Both of these women loved the two children and served as human emotional buffers at different times between them and the unpredictable WIllis.
As an adult, John is now sorting the memories that erupt as he is now the caregiver for the worsened Willis. John is overcome with mixed reactions, buffeted by the waves of agitated spew thanks to the dementia his father’s demeanor is swamped by, usually at inconvenient moments.
There are few rays of absolute clarity, but the sundowning and the anger that Willis exhibits are hallmarks of a disease that enhance the worse qualities of a human being until they are no longer able to function at all. Accelerating dementia, in many respects, is a living death. John and his very supportive family seem to grasp this fact as they mollify the old man.
There are moments towards the end where you see the light at the end of the tunnel, emotionally speaking.
In some regards, the film is a Trojan horse of a love letter to a generation of men who were never allowed to openly express love, nor understand how to be a partner to a woman without stifling her ambitions and hopes.
Falling feels to be an artistic expression of the importance of forgiveness, of managing and loving the raging monster who is now at the end of his life. It is about acceptance and seeing the bigger picture that his life was, and what your life means now. The smaller happier moments recalled are anchors of reflection revealed to yourself and also better illuminating that person who was not perfect, but who made you who you are today.