A conservative father moves from his rural farm to live with his gay son’s family in Los Angeles.
Viggo Mortensen has had an impressive acting career and with ‘Falling’, he makes his first steps into directing with this tale of the troubled relationship between a father and his son. He plays John, a middle-aged gay man who lives with his partner (Terry Chen) in California, a far cry from his rural upbringing on the family farm in the Midwest. His father Willis (Lance Henriksen) still lives on the farm by himself, however he is starting to suffer from dementia and John makes the difficult decision to bring him to California so he and his sister (Laura Linney) can help find him a home closer to where they live. This may sound like it’s John’s film, but the lead is actually his father Willis, providing a rare leading role for Lance Henriksen, and the film spends a lot of time exploring his younger years through flashback as his memories in the present start to falter.
This is a very challenging film because Willis is a very difficult man to warm too and appears to have no redeeming qualities, so whilst our initial sympathy naturally lies with the man dementia, it quickly subsides when we discover that Willis is a bigot who is rude and mean to his children, grandchildren and anyone else he encounters. Despite John’s efforts to care for him, he takes all manner of abuse, particularly about his sexuality, and it makes much of ‘Falling’ tough to watch. Many will be familiar with older relatives who are out of touch and who say ignorant and hurtful things, and to an extent it’s something we tolerate, but Willis is so far beyond that, and the flashbacks to his younger years don’t exactly indicate that this is a later life development.
It is not a necessity for protagonists in films to be likeable and some of the most iconic television shows of recent years such as ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘Breaking Bad’ have been led by deeply unpleasant man, but what they have, and ‘Falling’ perhaps lacks, is a reason to invest in these characters that makes them interesting beyond their flaws. Granted comparing TV with film is like apples with oranges, but ‘Falling’ never establishes Willis as anything more than an embittered, homophobic and racist old man who has carried these prejudices with him from his younger years. The challenge that ‘Falling’ has, and a challenge it never fully overcomes, is that Willis is pretty much irredeemable and the narrative doesn’t attempt to redeem him, nor provide enough insight to help us understand why he is who he is – think Clint Eastwood in ‘Gran Torino’ for a good example of this type of story told well.
What does work about ‘Falling’ is the performances and that starts with Henriksen, who does a quite remarkable job with a tough character to play given he spends much of his screentime yelling and hurling slurs at anyone unfortunate enough to be in his presence. Henriksen is an actor who will be familiar to most in small roles in a variety of moves, often science fiction such as ‘Alien’ and it’s great to see him in a more demanding role in his later years. Mortensen has always been a fine and interesting actor and he’s also very watchable here in an understated role where he mostly has to sit back, listen and take abuse. I found myself touched when there are tentative signs of a bond between father and son, albeit one complicated by a chequered past and a lifetime of difficulty, and on occasions the film could be quite moving, but this was all tempered by my struggle to fully invest in a protagonist such as Willis and ‘Falling’ never quite rises past that for me.
Directed By: Viggo Mortensen
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Lance Henriksen, Laura Linney, Terry Chen, Hannah Gross, Sverrir Gudnason, William Healy, Etienne Kellici, Grady McKenzie, Ava Kozelj and Carina Battrick