Viggo Mortensen is an all-encompassing artist. Since 1985, he’s acted in 52 films, released 21 records, and authored or co-authored 18 books, some of which consist of his photography, and poetry, and abstract paintings, and some of which solely track his anthropological research on South American natives in tandem with ethnography scholars. But he’d never written or directed a film, that is, until now. The new decade brings new territory for Mortensen, the Sundance debut of Falling marking both his screenwriting and directing debut, although it’s worth noting he also produced, scored, and stars heavily in the film.
Mortensen plays John Peterson, a gay man who grew up on a farm up north at the hand of a traditional, blue-collar American couple that split ways when he and his sister were still very young. In a Tree of Life-esque vein, his parents were polar opposites. In flashbacks, his mother, Gwen (Hannah Gross) is a gentle, kind, and loving soul brimming with patience and wisdom, while his father, Willis (Sverrir Gudnason) is an angry, dominating, and intolerant boor who is emotionally unavailable despite having a belligerently proprietorial attitude toward his family. In a non-Tree of Life-esque vein, however, his father (played by Lance Henriksen in the present) only got worse as time ticked on.
In Mortensen’s most notable directorial flare, Falling flashes back and forth between John’s childhood on the farm and his present-day life in California as a well-to-do suburban husband to his Chinese-American partner, Eric, and father to their daughter, Monica (Gabby Velis). There’s nothing novel about interwoven timelines, but Mortensen’s vision of how the two interact is poignant and meditative. It’s heightened by the craftsmanship of longtime David Cronenberg editor, Ronald Sanders.
Sanders uses editing like a time machine that’s triggered abruptly by images of interrelated objects around the house, or lingering memories, or facial expressions, or pure imagination. The cuts are sharp, sporadic, and specific, and they do wonders in developing Mortensen’s characters, which is imperative in a film that revolves entirely around the richness of its two radically different men.
In the present day, we quickly gather that his mother is no longer around, but not as quickly as we realize his father hasn’t gone anywhere. Willis stills lives on the farm, but he’s becoming increasingly incapable of taking care of himself due to a severe case of dementia, which keeps him from being able to hold a coherent conversation without slipping into a past reality or remember where he can or can’t light up a cigarette.
As a result, he requests that John bring him to California to look for a place near John and his sister (Laura Linney in one of her shakiest performances to date). Of course, he doesn’t remember doing that, claims he never would’ve done that, and makes it very clear that California and its progressive values repulse him. In other words, his visit is unpleasant for everyone involved. But his qualms don’t stop with California.
Willis is the kind of bigoted old countryman that compulsively spouts queer slurs like “fairy,” “fag,” and “dyke”—bitter contempt in every syllable—in his son or granddaughter’s face to provoke them. He’s possessed by an impudent masculinity so antiquated and narrow, it seems as if his only purpose is to achieve the nastiest levels of incivility, as if a fatal opprobrium is hanging over his head if he doesn’t.
He not only unwantedly brags about the “pussy” he got (in front of children, no less), but that which he dreams of, exploding into graphic tirades about his heterosexuality like they might have the power to curb the cardinal direction of his son’s libido if they’re despicable enough. The rough and rugged Henriksen is perfect for the part, delivering the best performance of his career through derisive scowls, growls, and tantrums.
John, on the other hand, is an angel. Willis berates him for the majority of the 112-minute runtime, but John remains calm, sweet, patient, and temperate with him no matter what he says. Although the rising tension of an explosive breakdown lingers in every crevice of the house, the film is written in a way that makes it easy to imagine oneself blowing up on their parents after too many lines have been crossed.
In many ways, that’s Falling’s chief concern: how does one deal with emotionally disparate parents or grandparents in their old age and supreme stubbornness? How does one traverse the ideological gaps that separate entire generations? How does one deal with a love for a parent who’s no longer returning it? It’s difficult enough for those who are grounded in a good relationship with their parents, but throw someone like Willis in the mix and the resounding question becomes, “When do I call it quits?” How long is John willing to keep falling?
Mortensen deals with the issue sensitively yet explicitly. In other words, Falling is not for the faint of heart. It’s a prime example of how reproachable vulgarities and slurs can be used in art as means to an end that harbors significance and truth, in this case the accurate characterization of an insolent traditionalist that never doubted the socially constructed convictions he was raised with. He also refrains from catapulting his queer narrative into the territory of beleaguered tropes. But that doesn’t imply that Mortensen made a masterpiece.
Falling runs too long for how little it chooses to develop past a particular point of both characterization and narrativization. After so many of Willis polemics, both in the past and present, we get it. The final thirty minutes could be whittled down to ten and nothing would be left behind or feel overwrought. Mortensen also admitted that he never wanted to be in the film but had to be due to financing. It makes one wonder what the final product might’ve looked like if he was able to devote all of his energy to the director’s chair. Either way, Mortensen’s thankful for the opportunity, acknowledging that he’s “unproven” and “lucky to get a chance” to direct a film.
More than anything, Falling is proof that the Danish-American polymath has spent significant time around great directors—like Jane Campion, Peter Weir, Brian De Palma, Gus Van Sant, and frequent collaborator David Cronenberg, who has an on-brand cameo as a doctor that gives a prostate exam to Willis—and always loves a new artistic challenge.