Viggo Mortensen’s unconventional family drama Falling may not strike as an obvious feature for the always-interesting actor’s debut as writer-director, but the project serves as an intense simmering emotional battlefield with powerful turns from Mortensen and genre-favourite Lance Henriksen.
Liberal John Peterson (Mortensen) and his husband (Terry Chen) welcome John’s homophobic, conservative father Willis (Henriksen) to stay with the family after he begins exhibits signs of dementia. Challenges emerge in the form of Willis’s continually worsening health problems, but primarily through his bigoted attitudes which prompt John to reflect on his own upbringing.
Mortensen’s narrative is constructed in a quietly engrossing manner, splicing flashbacks to John’s youth with his contemporary relationship with his conservative father. These moments range from gently heart-warming (an early scene from John’s childhood with his young father (Sverrir Gudnason) hunting ducks) to more troubling memories (such a fractures in Willis and his first wife’s marriage). Mortensen cleverly places these flashbacks alongside tonally similar present day sequences, establishing a deep sense of character development and investment in the family drama that the filmmaker presents.
John’s patience throughout the narrative only strengthens the scenes where this breaks in the film’s dramatic conclusion. The mild-mannered liberal quietly ignores or calmly detracts his father’s blatant homophobia and racism, with a calm grace – something further highlighted in a tense emotive sequence with sister Sarah (played by Laura Linney) in which she struggles to cope with her father’s abrasive behaviour and deteriorating health, whilst on the contrary John seems patient and relaxed.
Henriksen is particularly impressive – an actor who continually soars as a supporting star but is rarely given the chance to flex his leading man chops. Willis is not a sympathetic character, yet Henriksen shines as the conservative dinosaur, continually struggling to accept the changing political and social pace of life. Further stress and anger is channelled through Willis’s helplessness to control his own health – a figure who has always had a dictatorial control on he and his family’s lives. New events and old memories become entangled and confused, which when paired with his fiery temperament creates a melting pot of perplexed rage which Henriksen channels masterfully.
Mortensen’s aesthetic style, paired with cinematography from Marcel Zyskind creates an impressive visual blend. There’s an almost ethereal quality in the scenes which capture moments of nature from John’s rural American childhood with a dreamlike quality. A scene featuring older Willis lost and lingering on a beach eventually wading through the water, evokes poignant similarities with a young John sifting through a lake to collect a hunted duck. This and many other make up immaculately thought-out details which showcase Mortensen’s emotionally intellectual approach to writing and directing.
Falling’s impressive showcase in the build up of years worth of hurt and suppressed issues, paired with impressively crafted emotive characterisation allows Mortensen’s debut to shine. Stellar turns from Henriksen and Mortensen, gentle aesthetics, and blending of past and present narrative strands are just a small numbers of the debut filmmaker’s successes.
Falling is available to watch from December 4th here.