Film Review: Falling (dir by Viggo Mortensen)

If you’re one of the many people who watched The Father and thought to yourself, “Good movie but I wonder what it would have been like if every character involved had been thoroughly unlikable and one-dimensional,” Falling might be for you.

I almost felt guilty writing that paragraph because Falling is the directorial debut of actor Viggo Mortensen and Mortensen has been very open about how several members of his family have struggled with dementia. He lost both his mother and his father to dementia and he served as his father’s caretaker during the last year of his life. As Falling is film about a man taking care of his father when the latter develops dementia, it’s easy to see that this film is a very personal one for Mortensen. Unfortunately, as both a director and a screenwriter, Mortensen basically leads his story straight into a dead end.

Lance Henriksen plays Willis Peterson, a bigoted and angry old farmer who is being taken care of by his estranged son, John (Viggo Mortensen) and John’s husband, Eric (Terry Chen). John hopes to find Willis a new and nearby place to live so that he and his sister, Sarah (Laura Linney), can check in on him. Willis is occasionally charming in a irascible old man way but, usually, he’s just abrasive, abusive, angry and a bit of a homophobe. He’s also losing his memory, continually forgetting that his wife is dead and talking about all of the ways that John and Sarah disappointed him when they were teenagers.

The film asks whether or not Willis was always an asshole or if he’s just asking like this because he’s suffering from dementia. That would be an interesting question if not for the fact that the film is also full of heavy-handed flashbacks that reveal that, without any doubt, Willis was always an asshole. The problem is that, once you realize that Willis was an unbearable young parent and an unbearable middle-aged crank, it becomes difficult to care much about him once he becomes an unbearable old man. If The Father showed how dementia changes one’s personality and way of looking at the world, the message of Falling seems to be that terrible things also happen to terrible people. And while that’s a certainly true statement, it doesn’t make for a particularly compelling narrative.

One does have to give Mortensen some credit for giving Lance Henriksen a leading role. Henriksen not only looks like he could conceivably by Viggo Mortensen’s father but he does what he can to suggest that, under all of the bluster and the anger and the hateful words, Willis is ultimately a man who is scared because the world is transforming into one that he’s not capable of understanding. That’s a idea that is present in the film almost solely due to Henriksen’s performance and the few scenes that are genuinely interesting to watch are almost all due to his efforts. There’s no winking at the audience during Willis’s many abrasive moments and Henriksen deserves credit for fearlessly and honestly playing a character that most viewers aren’t going to like.

Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn’t live up to the promise of Henriksen’s performance. The script often feels repetitive and neither Mortensen nor Linney make much of an impression as Henriksen’s children. (Linney, as happens far too often, feels especially wasted, leaving viewers to wonder what happened to the actress who, long ago, gave such a fierce performance in Mystic River.) The scene where Henriksen meets Linney’s children is especially poorly-written and seems to go on forever. It becomes clear that, as a director, Mortensen has a good visual eye but no idea how to build or maintain narrative momentum with a story that centers on characters who are incapable of moving forward.. One watches the film and admires Mortesen’s intentions but emotionally, the whole production feels remote and overly studied. Falling underwhelms.

Scenes That I Love: Billy Jack Learns About The Three Levels In The Trial of Billy Jack

Monday would have been the 90th birthday of Tom Laughlin, the actor who revolutionized independent American cinema through his Billy Jack films.

In four films, Laughlin played Billy Jack, an American Navajo, a former Green Beret, a veteran of the Vietnam War, a hapkido master, and a man who just protects children and other living things.  When he first appeared in 1967’s The Born Losers, he was protecting a woman from bikers.  In 1971’s Billy Jack, he was protecting the Freedom School from ignorant townspeople.  In 1974’s The Trial of Billy Jack, he was …. well, in that film, Billy Jack did a little bit of everything but the National Guard still ended up destroying the Freedom School.  Finally, in 1977’s Billy Jack Goes To Washington, Billy was appointed to the United Stated Senate because what else are you going to do with someone who has killed a tremendous amount of people over the course of three films?

(Of course, in Senator Jack’s defense, they were all bad people.)

Laughlin not only starred as Billy Jack but he also directed all four of the films and, starting with Billy Jack, he also handled the distribution of them.  A huge box office hit, Billy Jack is considered to be a seminal counter culture film.  The other three films are a bit less acclaimed and Trial of Billy Jack is often cited as one of the most pretentious and self-indulgent films ever made.  But, regardless of their individual artistic merits, all of the Billy Jack films share an appealing mix of sincerity and silliness.  Laughlin was a good actor and, visually, he was a stronger director than he was often given credit for. Some of the shots in the original Billy Jack are breath-taking.  At a time when even self-styled progressive films still portrayed women in the most condescending and demeaning way possible (check out Getting Straight or R.P.M., if you dare), the Billy Jack films were as much about Jean (played by Delores Taylor, Laughlin’s wife and creative partner), the founder of the Freedom School, and her beliefs, as they were about Billy Jack and his struggles to accept pacifism.  If nothing else, the Billy Jack films featured actual conversations and debates about actual ideologies and philosophies, as opposed to the usual shallow Hollywood politics.  Unfortunately, Laughlin was also a heavy-handed storyteller and a terrible editor.  The Trial of Billy Jack goes on for three hours.

And yet, of all the Billy Jack films, The Trial of Billy Jack is my favorite.  It’s just so weird that it’s hard not to like it.  It’s a film that doesn’t really work but, at the same time, you can’t help but appreciate all the effort that was put into it.  Whatever else you might be able to say about him and his films, it’s obvious that Tom Laughlin truly did think that the movies could make a difference.  There’s an aching sincerity to Laughlin’s work that pretty much cannot be found in the majority of today’s films.

In honor of Laughlin’s birthday and his legacy, here’s a scene that I love from The Trial of Billy Jack.  In this scene, Billy goes on a vision quest and experiences the Three Levels.  I would be lying if I said I really followed much of the logic in the scene but at least we get to see Billy hit a hippie professor.  Billy also smacks Jesus, which isn’t cool but Jesus shows exactly how to handle that type of belligerence and hopefully, he provides a lesson for us all.

Learn about the Three Levels, with Billy Jack.  And be sure to spare a thought for the hard work of Tom Laughlin.

Music Video of the Day: Rockin’ The Paradise by Styx (1981, directed by ????)

According to Styx’s Dennis DeYoung, this song was meant as a “working class take on what was wrong in America.”

it was also the first song on the Paradise Theater album.  The Paradise was a real theater in Chicago.  It opened in 1928 and, after years of neglect, it was torn down in 1958.  DeYoung saw a picture of the dilapidated Paradise in an art museum and he felt that it was the perfect metaphor for the end of the American dream.  Hence, the album and this song.

And, for that matter, this video.  The video opens with DeYoung on a stage that could very well have been in the Paradise Theater.  He wears a white tuxedo, the type that would have been popular when the Paradise Theater first opened.  Of course, once he joined onstage by the rest of Styx, the video becomes a fairly standard performance clip.

This was the 10th video to be played on MTV on August 1st, 1981, the network’s first day of broadcast.


The First Videos Shown on MTV:

  1. Video Killed the Radio Star by the Buggles
  2. You Better Run by Pat Benatar
  3. She Won’t Dance With Me by Rod Stewart
  4. You Better You Bet By The Who
  5. Little Suzi’s On The Up by PH.D
  6. We Don’t Talk Anymore by Cliff Richard
  7. Brass in Pocket by Pretenders
  8. Time Heals by Todd Rundgren
  9. Take It On The Run by REO Speedwagon