A film review by Craig J. Koban February 15, 2021

FALLING jjj

2021, R, 112 mins

Viggo Mortensen as John Petersen  /  Lance Henriksen as Willis Peterson  /  Sverrir Gudnason as Willis Peterson  /  Laura Linney as Sarah  /  Hannah Gross as Gwen  /  Terry Chen as Eric  /  David Cronenberg as Dr. Klausner

Written and directed by Viggo Mortensen

FALLING is a very difficult film to watch based on its subject matter.  It dives headfirst into the challenges that families have to endure while dealing with an elderly member with dementia, in its case between a son and his ailing father.  This multi-generational drama marks the feature film directorial debut of Viggo Mortensen, and he certainly maintains an assured eye and confident hand in dealing with this problematic and challenging material.  FALLING is mercilessly unflinching in portraying its characters in various states of distress and showing the ever increasing levels of family friction that arises as a result; many moments contained within have a raw and gut wrenching power.  That, and the film contains career defining, tour de force work by Lance Henriksen in a very difficult and polarizing role. 

FALLING tells its family story through the lens of multiple time periods, ranging from the 60s, 70s, and the present day.  Mortensen (also appearing in front of the camera) plays John, a middle-aged pilot that lives in California with his husband in Eric (Terry Chen) and their adopted daughter in Monica (Gabby Velis).  The opening scene of the film immediately thrusts us into this clan's stresses with John's elderly father in Willis (Henriksen), who's being flown from his family farm in the Bible belt back to Californian to find him a place to live that's close to John and company.  At one point, Willis angrily jumps up from his chair, runs up and down the isles, and begins screaming profanities while looking for his wife...who passed away several years ago.  Poor John bares the responsibility to calm down his deranged father and stop what could become a rather large scene on the airplane.  This is just the beginning of many painfully awkward moments between father and son that permeate this film. 

John does have a plan for this frail and sickly, but toxically cantankerous dad: He wants to sell Willis' family farm in upstate New York and secure him a house in California so he can be closer to him during his final years, but Willis doesn't seem altogether keen on the idea at all.  Obviously, there are many memories to be had for John and Willis about their past family life back home, especially with the now deceased mother/wife and with John's sister.  As we learn in a series of flashbacks, Willis was a unique brand of SOB whose bad mood swings and alcoholism usually put John and his mother and sister on the receiving end of abuse.  In the present, John tries to get his dad to acclimate to temporarily living with his family, which is made all the more difficult because Willis is an appalling homophobe that has never come to grips with - nor likes - any homosexuals...even if one is his own flesh and blood.  While John tries with Herculean levels of patience to put up with his father's constant barrage of verbal tirades directed towards him and his spouse, Willis finds the past - what he can remember, that is - creeping back up on him, and his failings as a husband and father have fuelled his decades-long anger and resentment for just about everything around him.  This makes Willis a double threat.  He's a dementia sufferer that also happens to be a thoroughly detestable human being.   

 

 

I usually find that films that dive back and forth through multiple timelines to be pretty messy and chaotic overall without the right editorial touches, but Mortensen is wise to align himself here with editor Ronald Sanders to make some semblance of sense out of the various periods presented here to the point where they all flow seamlessly together.  The transitions between John's childhood, adolescence, and present day adulthood are pretty smooth as silk, and the more one watches FALLING the more we're able to put the pieces of this family's puzzle together to gain an understanding of what makes these characters tick.  Beyond its temporal jumps, FALLING also shifts memory focus from John to Willis rather freely, so we gain, in essence, their mutual perspectives on past events.  We get the largest portal into Willis' mindset, though, as we see him as an ultra conservative minded rural American man that tried to make a go of it on his farm to provide for his family, but he often ruled over them with an insensitive iron fist.  When his marriage crumbled and his kids eventually grew up and left, Willis was left alone and to himself.  And that just made him more bitter with each passing year. 

And Willis, to be sure, is an extremely challenging character nut to crack.  He's just...well...mean.  All the time.  And to everyone.  When he's not unleashing F-bomb riddled rants to his son, he's lambasting him and his partner with indescribably profane gay slurs that would easily invite a slap across the face with each utterance.  He hates that his son is gay and will never understand his life choices, which hurts John to no end, despite the fact that he begrudgingly puts up with it in a self-proclaimed effort to "not engage" with his father when he talks in such an ill manner of those around him.  Willis is also incapable of empathy throughout the story, nor will he ever apologize for anything he says or does in the present or the past.  But, he's not well. He's quite sick and not mentally in control of himself, which makes John's situation all the more nerve wracking and endurance testing.  Mortensen doesn't, however, go out of his way to make Willis a sympathetic character, though.  Dealing with dementia is horrible, but Willis was always chronically unpleasant, as is revealed through the flashbacks.  What FALLING wants to do, I think, is to allow audiences to understand Willis as a difficult to digest character without making us feel outright pity for him and, in the process, show the trials and tribulations that John has to arduously go through to care for this man. 

Henriksen is pitch perfectly cast as Willis and has probably never given as layered of a performance in his long career.  He has a very difficult acting challenge here in terms of relaying Willis at his most socially reprehensible (a bitter and furious old lout that takes great relish in lashing out at others without remorse) while also showing him as a deeply wounded, vulnerable, and weak man that can't come to grips with his past, which threatens his happiness in the present and could lead to him dying pathetically alone.  In many respects, Willis is more of a tragic figure than a sad and sympathetic one, and most of the messy volatility that is experienced between him and his son is started with his unhealthy outbursts.  Henriksen is allowed full carte blanche to capture this man's heart of darkness by his director in Mortensen, but the latter is also quite good as an effective emotional foil to his co-star.  John seems almost impossibly calm and Zen-like throughout in his ability to take and take his father's hurtful words and somehow still respond to them with soft spoken kindness, and Mortensen captures a man that's trying awfully hard to not stoop to his father's level, but could boil over at any moment when pushed too hard.  Every scene that he shares with Henriksen crackles with disquieting tension and an undulating sense of unease as to what's to come. 

I only wished, though, that FALLING built to a more dramatically potent ending considering all of the well oiled build up.  Yes, we get the obligatory third act heated family confrontations where all parties voices their decades long grievances, but I don't think that Mortensen found a satisfying sense of closure to this story (it's almost a non-ending, in a way, where nothing really has changed for anyone).  Some other characters are introduced and then never heard from again (like a strong, but all too brief supporting turn by Laura Linney as John's long term grieving sister), but I did appreciate the brief cameo that Mortensen gave David Cronenberg (who directed him previously in EASTERN PROMISES and A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE) as a family doctor performing a prostate check on Willis in one of the film's genuinely funny moments.  Plus, it can be easily argued that FALLING will become a very aggravating watch for many due to Willis' ongoing reprehensibility without any light at the end of the tunnel.  I would argue, however, that the film tries to provide intimate insight into a particularly troubled family and all of the heartache that they've dealt with for decades all coming to a head.  FALLING is horrifyingly authentic in chronically the convoluted and heated dynamic between father and son, and it shows Mortensen as having the soul and chops of a real directing talent.  

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