Dir: Viggo Mortensen. Featuring: Viggo Mortensen, Lance Henriksen, Sverrir Gudnason, Laura Linney, Hannah Gross, Terry Chen, David Cronenberg. Cert 15, 112 mins
It’s no surprise that Falling, Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut, feels just as inscrutable as the man behind the lens. He seems like he’s slipped out of the pages of some old epic poem; noble, spiritual, and worldly. He’s an actor, yes, but also a poet, a wanderer, a polyglot, a patron, and an artist – now also a director. He’s too enigmatic to comfortably fit the label of Renaissance man. It’s more accurate, perhaps, to call him an artistic nomad, capable of starring in one of the most popular fantasy series of all time, The Lord of the Rings, and becoming a three-time Oscar nominee, without ever actually puncturing the Hollywood bubble.
Not only did he write and direct Falling, and compose its twinkly and poetic score, but he also plays the role of John Peterson, a middle-aged gay man and the abused and harried son of the homophobic Willis (Lance Henriksen). Mortensen has taken aspects of his own family history, including the rush of childhood memories that returned to him after his mother’s funeral, and let them fester onscreen like an open wound. Its story may be fictional (Mortensen, for example, has chosen not to publicly disclose his sexuality), but there are minute bursts of autobiography here – raw, emphatic, and so self-enclosed within Mortensen’s imagination that the result can feel alienating.
A series of flashbacks, stretched across the 20th century, confirm that Willis has always been a cruel man. But senility has calcified that mean streak and turned it bitter. Falling is exhausting to watch, as Willis unleashes a barrage of hate against anyone and everyone in his path: John and his husband Eric (Terry Chen), his daughter Sarah (Laura Linney) and her teen kids, his proctologist (a cameo from director David Cronenberg), nurses, stewardesses, and – at an art gallery – that “commie r*****” Picasso. At a restaurant, he calls a tank full of fish “whores”. They nervously scatter.
Willis is a wholly monstrous creation. Henriksen, a venerable character actor known for his roles in Aliens and Terminator, treats him as such. He is Hyde without the peace of Jekyll, all cragged brow and curdled lips. If there’s an impulse to search for some beating soul deep down within the thorns, Mortensen makes sure there’s no trace of a sympathetic backstory to be found, no “Rosebud” moment. All we get are a few words that the younger Willis (Sverrir Gudnason) imparts to his infant son: “I’m sorry I brought you into this world, so that you could die.”
The greater mystery is why John continues to dutifully, if not wearily, take care of his abusive father. He takes him to California, a place Willis has deemed the home of “c***suckers and flag-burners”. He lets him spend time with his young daughter (Gabby Velis). Mortensen is enough of a realist – or, at least, an anti-sentimentalist – not to make Willis particularly empathetic, nor is he under any delusion that their relationship could be solved with a Green Book-esque road trip of spiritual healing. John simply brushes off his father’s taunts. He has no interest in changing him, but is compelled only by some deep-rooted sense of filial duty.
And yet, Mortensen can’t quite figure out how to turn unsatisfactory truths into a satisfactory film. Falling ends up with a scattered, searching quality. It’s never clear whose perspective the flashbacks are from. The matriarch of the family (Hannah Gross) drifts through like a pale, weeping ghost. Willis, meanwhile, never reaches any revelation that doesn’t instantly slip out of his fingers like dust. The journey is brutal, the destination turns out to be a dead-end – but credit goes to Mortensen for still making the effort seem worthwhile.