When an actor turns to filmmaking, it’s always fascinating to see what they opt to tackle. For Viggo Mortensen, his debut project behind the camera is about as challenging as it gets. In addition to writing and directing Falling (not to mention composing the score), Mortensen has a central role as well. Moreover, the content he’s chosen is dark, un-commercial, and handled with a deep sense of realism. None of it makes for a likely hit. However, it does all make for a film with much to dig into. Falling will bother many, but those who give it a chance will find terrific acting, a tough issue handled with care, and some genuinely complex emotions.
Falling is a look at dementia, but done in a way that’s unlike how almost any other movie has gone about it. For some, it may go too far in the darkness that comes with the territory, but it just feels real. While the narrative is nothing to write home about, watching this depiction of a parent spiraling downward brings out some terrifically vibrant emotions.
Willis (Lance Henriksen) has always been a complicated figure to his son John (Mortensen). As a child, he looked up to him, but there was always a disconnect. As an adult, it’s only gotten worse, though Willis’ worsening dementia doesn’t help. Bringing him out to California, the hope is that this change will help, but it’s clear that it isn’t the case. Willis is not just struggling to be independent, lost in memories of the past, he’s getting nastier and more bitter.
The more time John and Willis spend together, the more it becomes clear that a long-simmering confrontation is brewing. Whether it’s during moments with John’s partner Erik (Terry Chen) and their daughter, or at lunch with Willis’ daughter/John’s sister Sarah (Laura Linney), an argument is always a split-second away. Of course, the more we see of John and Willis years ago, the more sense it makes that they’re this way today. When they finally throw down with what’s been below the surface, it’s both enraging and also cathartic.
Lance Henriksen delivers the best work of his career here. Digging in to what must have been a terrifying role, he makes Willis both horrific and utterly recognizable. As much as one may want to believe that melodramas have it right, this is likely how it goes for many families. Harsh words are spoken, bile is spilled, and it’s a messy situation. Henriksen delivers this all with an impeccably dark turn. Sverrir Gudnason, playing a younger version of the character, adds in some layers to the role, too. Together they make him scarily memorable. Viggo Mortensen plays his part very low-key, at least until the climax. Then, the Mortensen we all expect to win an Oscar one day appears. Laura Linney is wasted, but this is mainly about Henriksen.
Viggo Mortensen proves with Falling that he has a bright future as a filmmaker. The role he wrote for Henriksen is terrific, even if it goes a little overboard in terms of his homophobia remarks. Mortensen certainly doesn’t shy away from making Willis unlikable. His script, as well as his direction and score, all work best when focused on Henriksen’s character. You feel for this family. In particular, the way an argument reaches its climax is about as real as it gets, while being wholly original for a film.
Falling will be too tough a sit for some. The movie will disturb those who can’t handle its realism. In fact, up until the end, it threatened to be too much for me. However, when taken as a whole, the flick winds up working. Especially if you want to see Mortensen showing off a new skill, this is worth seeking out.