PG Score: 6/10
Falling opened in theaters on 2/5/21 and is now streaming
Despite attacking difficult subject matter head-on, Falling plays the same tune for far too long and fails to dig deep enough for a powerful message. Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut does not measure up to his decorated acting career, but his fearlessness at the helm is commendable.
The plot, which partially stems from the writer/director's own experiences, centers on John Peterson (Viggo Mortensen) as he brings his father, 80-year-old farmer Willis (Lance Henriksen), from his solitary life in upstate New York to stay with John and his family until he finds a new house close by. Willis is suffering from dementia, and his worsening condition further tests the already strained father-son relationship.
John lives with his husband, Eric (Terry Chen), and their adoptive daughter, Mönica (Gabby Velis) in Southern California. When he invites Willis into that diverse and loving environment, his dad's vile manner is inflicted on the entire household. While no one is safe from his brazen misogyny and blatant racism, most of his venom is directed at John’s sexual orientation. As a father, it is clearly a source of shame for Willis, and he constantly reminds John in the form of graphic derision and vengeful verbal assaults. The method Mortensen employs to get his point across is excessive and makes the movie a much tougher watch than it should be.
Falling lets the audience know what to expect right out of the gate. Within the first few minutes, viewers are greeted with a glimpse of the profanity and verbal abuse they will endure for most of the 112-minute runtime. The opening sets the tone for a film that depicts this abhorrent behavior to a gratuitous extent. Considering the syndrome wreaking havoc on his mental faculties, it is reasonable to initially feel some degree of sympathy for Willis. This could not be further from the case.
Any potential empathy for the foul-mouthed character is quickly and firmly extinguished. While he relies on them much too frequently, Mortensen wisely inserts flashbacks that focus on John’s relationship with his father as a child and into his adolescent years. In shedding light on the causes of their broken bond, it also reveals the type of person Willis was before his dementia set in. While the condition certainly amplified his repulsive language and removed any semblance of a filter he may have had prior, his mean-spirited personality existed long before the diagnosis. Since so much of the movie displays the jarring degree of detestability Willis is capable of, this revelation puts the viewer in an awkward position regarding any hope for repairing the core relationship. In turn, it harms the value of Mortensen’s introductory outing behind the camera.
Falling showcases some gorgeous cinematography, and several shots during the flashback sequences are especially eye-catching. These images offer an intimate look at nature and provide a profound sense of beauty that is lacking (or missing altogether) virtually everywhere else. Cinematographer Marcel Zyskind’s splendid work adds much-needed depth to the film and is certainly one of its high points.
Lance Henriksen delivers the finest performance of his career as the truly loathsome Willis. Although he is very one-dimensional, the character possesses an extreme (and misguided) intensity that the actor captures exceptionally. It is a chilling spectacle to see absolute rage and hatred exhibited in such a convincing fashion through Henriksen.
Mortensen’s performance as John is understated and fits well with Willis’ obtrusive presence. John is compassionate and maintains his composure in the face of countless atrocities committed by his dad. This does not rank among his most inspired acting, which is somewhat understandable given the added writing and directing responsibilities. Still, his chemistry with Henriksen is outstanding as the two combine for some genuinely unsettling, yet impressive exchanges.
The leading men are backed by a string of supporting cast members that includes a few noteworthy performances. Sverrir Gudnason is particularly notable as the younger version of Willis and his inspired work is largely to thank for keeping the numerous time-hop segments afloat. The other major contributor is Hannah Gross as Willis’ late wife, Gwen. She effectively conveys the crushing despair that can be expected of the poor soul married to such a monster. Laura Linney makes good use of her limited screen time as John’s sister, Sarah. She is only in one scene but makes her presence felt through the skillful acting those familiar with her work are accustomed to.
Not Enough Range
The overload of repetitive, despicable dialogue and omission of any emotional takeaway hinder Falling, but the positives in Viggo Mortensen's bold entrance into the fray of filmmaking make it worth a watch.