Maybe Mortensen’s debut feels different because he’s more than an Oscar-nominated actor. He's also a poet, a painter, a photographer, and a musician (even composing the soundtrack for this film). With all those visual and prosodial talents in mind, his father-son dementia drama is a harshly curious movie showing the potential for a film-making career ahead.
Lance Henriksen stars as Willis. Photo: Modern Films
Movies featuring dementia tend to examine the struggles from the outside looking in, but Falling is the opposite. Mortensen enters the confused, disjointed mind of Willis (Lance Henriksen), a conservative, ageing, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic patriarch of a rural family farm.
But he was hardly different before the illness. He was always an arsehole – aggressive, emotionally abusive – even in the early days of his first marriage to Gwen (Hannah Gross). In his younger years, played by a quietly scary Sverrir Gudnason, his first words to his newborn son are ‘I’m sorry I brought you into this world… so you could die’, making the baby burst into tears.
These flashbacks ebb and flow randomly in the rough tides of his mind, often linked together by abstract images of wallpaper, light-switches, and wildlife – edited with poignant flow by Ronald Sanders.
Sverrir Gudnason as young Willis. Photo: Modern Films
In the present day, he’s travelling with his now-middle-aged son John (Mortensen) to the latter’s home in California. Mortensen plays John with delicate pathos, repressing his frustrations during his father’s torrents of offence. He keeps himself calm and collected, often having to push and pull Willis in the right directions as well as apologise to anyone in the firing line.
Considering these gruff, anti-Commie, isolated attitudes, Willis doesn’t take to California with any enthusiasm, saying it’s for ‘cocksuckers and flag-burners’.
His son’s family is a sharp contrast to his sensibilities. John is gay and married to Eric (Terry Chen), a Chinese nurse, and they have a Latina daughter (Gabby Velis) together. Since Willis is offended by the smallest differences – nose piercings, long hair – this new world doesn’t suit him. Be ready for many slurs that hurt the ears, but the un-PC dialogue is detrimental to Willis’s character, and to lose it would short-change the film’s brutal honesty.
John (Viggo Mortensen) takes Willis to his liberal home with his Chinese husband Eric (Terry Chen). Photo: Modern Films
But strangely, despite being an intolerant and intolerable human, there’s some affection buried several feet beneath – a love rarely shown and never spoken. Henriksen delivers an absorbing performance that cuts through Willis's abuse, his struggles laid bare in the contradictory emotions he endures – turning from smiling to shouting in a tiny time-frame.
During a long scene with Laura Linney (Ozark), playing his daughter Sarah, you can feel the impact of his irritated anger and hurtful words. The writing draws it out, Sarah trying hard to move onto different subjects before submitting, finally, to the upset.
The film leads inevitably to an explosive exchange between John and Willis, where the truth shoots from a shouting match of spittle. When writing the script, Mortensen drew loosely on his own parents (even dedicating the film to them), and that shows in his earnest but infuriated performance.
There’s no attempt to drizzle Willis with an empathetic sob story, unlocking the reasons behind his abusive personality. He is who he is. But there are little hints of a better person: through prideful smiles or a comforting half-embrace. Even though he’s detestable it’s still a life being torn apart, the pieces circling a perplexing darkness.
Falling is released in UK cinemas on Friday 4 December
04 Dec 20 – 04 Dec 21, TIMES VARY
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