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. KlausnerWritten 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.
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.
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.