Dir: Viggo Mortensen. With: Viggo Mortensen, Lance Henriksen, Sverrir Gudnason, Laura Linney, Hannah Gross, Terry Chen and David Cronenberg. 15, 112 min.
That’s no surprise Falling, Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut, feels just as unfathomable as the man behind the lens. It seems to have slipped out of the pages of an old epic poem. noble, spiritual and worldly. He’s an actor, yes, but also a poet, a wanderer, a multilingual, a patron and an artist – now also a director. It’s too puzzling to fit comfortably on the Renaissance man’s label. Perhaps it is more accurate to refer to him as an artistic nomad capable of starring in one of the most popular fantasy series of all time. Lord of the Rings, and becoming a three-time Oscar nominee without ever piercing the Hollywood bubble.
He didn’t just write and direct Fallingand composes his sparkling and poetic score, but also plays the role of John Peterson, a middle-aged gay man and the abused and harassed son of the homophobic Willis (Lance Henriksen). Mortensen has picked up aspects of his own family history, including the many childhood memories that returned to him after his mother’s funeral, and left them festering like an open wound on the screen. His story may be fictional (Mortensen, for example, chose not to reveal his sexuality publicly), but there are tiny bursts of autobiography here – raw, emphatic, and so trapped in Mortensen’s imagination that the result can feel alienating.
A number of flashbacks spanning the 20th century confirm that Willis was always a cruel man. But senility has calcified and bitter this median. Falling It’s grueling to see Willis unleash a barrage of hatred against anyone and everyone on his path: John and his husband Eric (Terry Chen), his daughter Sarah (Laura Linney) and their teenage children, his proctologist (a cameo of director David) Cronenberg), nurses, stewardesses and – in an art gallery – the “Commie r *****” Picasso. In a restaurant he calls a tank full of fish “whores”. They nervously disperse.
Willis is a completely monstrous creation. Henriksen, a venerable character actor known for his roles in Aliens and Terminatortreats him as such. He’s Hyde without the peace of Jekyll, all jagged eyebrows and curled lips. When there is an impulse to search deep within the thorns for a beating soul, Mortensen makes sure that there is no trace of a sympathetic backstory, no “rosebud” moment. We only get a few words that the younger Willis (Sverrir Gudnason) tells his little son: “I’m sorry that I brought you into this world so you could die.”
The bigger puzzle is why John continues to dutifully, if not tiredly, take care of his abusive father. He takes him to California, a place where Willis is known as a “c *** sucker and flag burner”. He lets him spend time with his young daughter (Gabby Velis). Mortensen is enough of a realist – or at least an anti-sentimentalist – not to make Willis particularly empathetic, and neither does he mislead that her relationship with a could be severed Green book-esque road trip of spiritual healing. John just wipes off his father’s ridicule. He has no interest in changing it but is only compelled by a deeply ingrained sense of filial duty.
Yet Mortensen cannot quite figure out how to turn unsatisfactory truths into a satisfying movie. Falling ends with a scattered search quality. It’s never clear what perspective the flashbacks are from. The matriarch of the family (Hannah Gross) drifts through like a pale, crying ghost. Meanwhile, Willis never achieves a revelation that doesn’t immediately slip from his fingers like dust. The journey is brutal, the goal turns out to be a dead end – but it is thanks to Mortensen that the effort was still worth it.