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.