One of the biggest “attractions” of Film Fest Gent in terms of guests in 2020 was Viggo Mortensen. The Dane has already collected an impressive list of achievements in his acting career, including Aragorn, Hidalgo, Captain Fantastic and even Green Book . But this year he dropped out to personally present his directorial and screenplay debut Falling , despite corona. We unfortunately missed him ourselves, but he seems to be very sympathetic. His debut certainly appealed to us, and it finally appears in theaters 8 months later than planned.
Mortensen takes on the role of John here. He lives in California with his partner Eric and their daughter Monica. However, their quiet life is disrupted when Willis, John’s father, is forced to move in with them temporarily. He starts to suffer from dementia and so they want to find him a house closer to them. However, that stay does not go smoothly because Willis has not fallen silent. He even regularly comes across as homophobic and racist. It is immediately clear that John and his father do not have the best relationship.
To better understand how that came about, the film alternates between the present and flashbacks to the past, when John was a child and his father a young man. Even then it was clear that Willis was not an easy man. At first he seemed happy with his family and fatherhood, but he clearly suffers from paranoia and control problems. This clouded the relationship with his son and wife. Yet Wilis in the present actually lives more and more in the past. The question is how long John can and will continue to do so.
I was pretty “underfoot” after this movie. Apparently Falling is partly inspired by Mortensen’s own life, and his father wouldn’t have been the easiest either. Both his parents are also said to have suffered from dementia. We can only guess how much there is exactly autobiographical. But I would like to point out a first clear difference: yes, Mortensen plays a gay man as a straight man, and until LGBTQ actors are given the same opportunity to do so, I find that a difficult point.
But where his role in Green Book often gravitated towards a clichéd image of his character, of course also due to the script, his portrayal here is not at all. There doesn’t seem to be anything special about this family and hardly any attention is drawn to it. Only John’s father doesn’t always see it that way. On the one hand he doesn’t seem to have a problem with it, but then suddenly something offensive flies out of his mouth.
Lance Henriksen steals the show in almost every scene he is in. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a character who is such an absolute jerk. The accusations fly out like it’s nothing. Not only about John and his family, but also about his wife, who had already passed away, and actually the world in general. Normally I quickly turn away from such characters so that the interest for me drops. But that was not the case here. Henriksen and the script do keep him human, aided by the flashback structure. There is also the question of what of his behavior is his personality or the disease from which he suffers. It seems to have been answered, but not with complete certainty.
Henriksen is best known as the android Bishop in Aliens but here he gets the chance to show a lot more. Viggo Mortensen portrays an incomprehensibly patient John, who continues to endure his father’s reproaches. Although it is the lead role, it is a very modest role, which seemed to suit him perfectly. And also with the film by the way, because despite the “flashy” behavior of Willis, Falling is not a sensational film in which emotions are constantly running high. There’s a scene that seems cut out for an Oscar reel, but it’s more than deserved by then. Laura Linney also shows up as John’s sister and she is always a welcome appearance.
As said before, I do see a future for Mortensen as a screenwriter. The two storylines are very well intertwined. In this way, ambiguities or vagueness in the plot are not simply told, but shown. But the other technical parts of the film are also used to complement the story. So I think I see Willis’ confusion reflected in the sound design: when Willis is there, there are often sounds that don’t belong there. The cinematography also delivers some beautiful images, especially in the past. Finally, everything is supported by a beautiful piano score, also by Mortensen. A real jack-of-all-trades, and I think he should continue to do so.
Viggo Mortensen’s writing and directorial debut paints a gripping picture of a son who tries to help his demented father and gets a stench of thanks for it. By weaving the present with the past, there is more depth to the story and their relationship. Lance Henriksen has the starring role, but this is Mortensen’s baby and it can certainly be there.