Falling is actor, Viggo Mortensen’s debut effort as both a writer and director and it is a stunning accomplishment. Mortensen casts himself as John, a successful pilot, living in California with his husband and their adopted daughter. The movie begins, (in quite shocking fashion), with a scene on a plane. John is flying home from the Midwest with his father, Willis, (Lance Henriksen), when the older man’s dementia causes him to forget where he is and create a scene. Willis is in California to look for a smaller property as he transitions away from the large farm he’s no longer capable of looking after. However, nothing goes to plan during his visit: he manages to offend his daughter, played by Laura Dern, forgets he’s agreed to move house and is so belligerent and offensive he insults almost everyone he comes into contact with.
The film moves backwards and forwards between contemporary time -where Henriksen does an incredible job of portraying an older man who is stubborn, angry and ultimately afraid of losing his own autonomy- and the past -where Sverrir Gudnasson plays a much younger version of Willis who is not yet living with dementia but is equally stubborn, angry and intent upon wielding his authority over his family. Mortensen’s portrayal of John is notable for his forbearance and his measured approach to his father. He maintains the same patient demeanour throughout as his father rages, delivers homophobic and racist insults and humiliates him at every turn. Mortensen’s compassion is so marked it makes the moment when he finally loses his temper -railing against his father for years of abuse- one of the most powerful scenes in the film.
It’s so refreshing to come across a narrative which explores the difficult subject of how to care for someone who is not nice and never has been. This topic is rarely covered in books and movies though, in my experience, it’s reasonably common to find someone caring for a family member who has dementia despite a fractured or even abusive relationship. Mortensen handles the material with sensitivity, but he’s also unflinching when it comes to including the harrowing details. I also appreciated the way he resists stereotyping Willard. Yes, this man is a horrible, racist, homophobic, misogynist but he’s also fond of his granddaughter and displays genuine affection for her. This is a difficult watch but a necessary one. I’d thoroughly recommend checking it out.
Falling was written and directed by Viggo Mortensen and released in the UK in February 2021