Celebrated actor Viggo Mortensen has enjoyed critical acclaim as well as box office success in a career spanning over 25 years, in films including the Lord of the Rings series, Eastern Promises, A History of Violence, and the 2018 Oscar-winning Green Book. He now tries his hand at both directing and screenwriting, with the intense family drama Falling, which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, and begins international release in November. It’s a film missing none of the essential elements—a good script full of dramatic tension; excellent acting; and a close and painful look into aspects of human nature, love, and family.
The essential story is a sad but familiar one. John (Viggo Mortensen), a commercial pilot who lives with his partner, Eric (Terry Chen), and their adopted daughter in Los Angeles. John’s elderly father, Willis (Lance Henriksen) has been living alone on the small, isolated farm where John grew up. Willis is now physically weak and developing dementia; John and his sister, Sarah (Laura Linney) are bringing him to California to find a suitable home near them.
Willis is often angry and disoriented, berating John and being hostile and belligerent toward everyone he encounters. This seems at first to be the results of his incipient dementia, but soon it becomes apparent that there are more problems between Willis and John than illness, and they go back many years.
As Willis tries to settle in at John’s home, and relations between the old man and John’s family are gradually strained to the breaking point, the film tells the family’s story through well placed flashbacks. When Willis repeatedly forgets that his first wife, John’s mother, is deceased and asks about her, we are shown a young Willis and his wife during John’s childhood, and get the first inkling of the family dynamics. Similarly, when Willis lashes out at his son, we are shown scenes from their interactions when John was a child, moving from his birth to adolescence, and understand the demands John felt placed on him from an early age. The script firmly blocks any simple explanations: that Willis rejects his son for being gay, or that he feels left behind by his more successful children. Both these things are true to some extent, but it is made clear that they don’t define Willis or his relationship with his family. Falling lets all the characters, likeable or not, be as complex and difficult to understand as real humans tend to be.
Willis’ anger, the family’s eventual breakdown, and the development of his love/hate relationship with his son are gradually unearthed through key events in John’s life, beginning with his birth and Willis’ affectionate but strange apology for bringing him into the world. Each newly introduced character adds a piece to the puzzle, as we see Willis interact with his daughter Sarah, and with John’s daughter, Monica (young newcomer Gabby Velis), each in different ways. Some past events are made clearer as we hear Willis provide his own, revised memory of events, often at odds with reality.
The character of Willis is boldly written. His anger and verbal outbursts are not toned down in any way; he is horrifying in his rage, willing to be deeply offensive, indecent, abusive, and sadistically hurtful when the mood strikes him. By the same token, the script doesn’t permit him to be easily defined as merely heartless and brutal: we see happy and loving interludes in his past life, as well as contentious ones; and he develops a warm friendship with his pre-adolescent granddaughter, who is not put off by his outrageous speech and readily stands up to him. The reasons behind the animosity that has largely ruined Willis’ life is only hinted at, in references to his own childhood.
While the script is good, it is the acting that makes Falling what it is. Mortensen is good as always. The brilliant Laura Linney does marvellous work as John’s sister, Sarah, who tries to put up a good front and overlook her father’s spiteful remarks and his attacks on her late mother, as her children subvert her efforts by refusing to politely ignore the mayhem. The rest of the supporting cast are also excellent, including a beautifully balanced performance by Hannah Gross (Joker, Tesla) as Gwen, John’s mother, a character Mortensen describes as “the conscience of the movie” and “the fulcrum that the principal characters gravitate around.” Her attempts to cope with her erratic husband, and to protect her children from Willis’ bad parenting instincts and unpredictable temper, define much of the film’s flashback material and explain a great deal about the family.
The highlight, however, and the element that puts the film over the top, is the audacious, no-holds-barred performance by Lance Henriksen. He brings across Willis’ hostility and sometimes frightening rage, but also captures the fear, confusion, and humiliation of gradually losing his bearings; the rigid expectations that leave him perpetually disappointed; the regrets that sometimes strike him as he recalls his past; his moments of genuine affection; and even, on rare, private occasions, traces of the real heart that existed before it was stunted by circumstances. It’s Henriksen’s portrayal of Willis that stands out, even among an exemplary cast.
Falling began with Viggo Mortensen’s script, which he admits was inspired by events from his own life, although not actually autobiographical. He began taking notes while returning from his mother’s funeral, describing small incidents from his childhood, including descriptions of his father. He expanded some of these into fictional sequences, which eventually developed into the screenplay for Falling. The finished script gave him the confidence to attempt directing for the first time.
The process of getting the film made reveals something about the early stages of the production process. Falling failed for some time to obtain funding. Mortensen reveals that he had not intended to appear in the film, but only to direct, until it emerged that his taking a lead role would draw the necessary funding, and he accepted the role of John. Mortensen had worked in Canada before, most notably with David Cronenberg, and was familiar with film crew members he wanted for the production. This including Danish cinematographer Marcel Zyskind, who had worked on Mortensen’s film Two Faces of January. Mortensen spent a great deal of pre-production time with Zyskind, as he considered the look of certain landscape scenes, including Willis’ farm in different seasons, and of Willis’ visual memories, to be vital.
During casting, funding was suddenly withdrawn, something Mortensen says is not unusual with indie films. A new company took on the film, resulting in it ultimately becoming a UK/Canada/Denmark production. One of the Canadian producers, Daniel Bekerman, commented at a TIFF press conference that a co-production can involve a great deal of bureaucratic red tape, but can be the best solution for smaller productions. He also spoke of the value of artist-driven indie films during the rise of streaming services; using creative means to keep such indies available keeps the film from becoming, as he calls it, “monolithic,” and international co-production is one way of making that possible, as it did in the case of Falling.
The film remains not only compelling but true to life to the end. Hannah Gross, who plays Gwen, comments on the film’s willingness to allow for a realistically imperfect conclusion, without everything being perfectly resolved. In the end, she says, “not everyone is forgiven. Not everybody figures out a way to communicate. Some people try and fail” but through a process of acceptance and forgiveness, “the father and son in our story begin to find a way to actually see each other.”