The multi-hyphenate Viggo Mortensen can now add director to his list of creative endeavors with Falling, an austere familial drama which he also wrote, scored, co-produced and stars in.
Mortensen plays John Peterson, a pilot whose stable life in California with husband Eric (Terry Chen) and young daughter threatens to be upended when his combative – and increasingly befuddled – father Willis (Lance Henriksen) arrives from his ramshackle family farm back east, looking to relocate to sunnier climates.
Mortensen flits back and forth throughout the film from John’s bumpy childhood to present day. The director’s work in fine arts is apparent here, as the flashbacks often have a painterly quality to them. Falling is an intimate affair, the present-day action looking like it could have almost been adapted from two-hander stage play. Mortensen shows restraint behind the camera, also putting in a performance of quiet dignity, yet it’s Henriksen who is absolutely the domineering force in the film.
A hugely prolific actor who has been relegated to appearing in an endless list of cheap genre films since his earlier glory days as a James Cameron regular, Henriksen is an inspired choice for Willis – his craggy, etched-in features chiming perfectly with a man who has been unbearable for decades. Willis has zero filter and jumps at any opportunity to be antagonistic and cruel, much to the sadness of his eternally patient son.
The character’s incessant foul-mouthed, bigoted attitude might have been intolerable to endure with a lesser performer – and there are points in the film which feel like a trial for the audience – but Hendrickson lets the occasion flashes of humanity to bubble up amongst the unpleasantness, whether it be merely a flash of forgetfulness or a fleeting ponder of regret. The actor does wonders in finding those small moments amongst the malice.
But Willis is so demonstrably belligerent that it makes us wonder why his children haven’t severed all ties years ago. Save for one telling piece of dialogue in the film’s flashback prologue, we never get to see what has skewed Willis’ view of the world and turned him into a career curmudgeon, although his actions in the past certainly impact upon his unhappy wife and reserved young son, who is indifferent to his father’s macho pastimes. That ambiguity is undoubtedly Mortensen’s decision, but it does make some of the latter-day behavior a slog to sit through.
What we are ultimately left with is a well-made, consummately-performed drama – Laura Linney shines in a small role as John’s equally exasperated younger sister – which unfortunately falls a little short of the intended emotional catharsis Mortensen is reaching for.
Adam Lowes | @adlow76