Viggo Mortensen’s Falling

I love to see it when a cherished and talented actor makes their debut as a director, especially if they absolutely nail it, and Viggo Mortensen’s Falling is an astonishingly terrific first time effort behind the camera, in front of it and collaborating with one of cinema’s most prolific and underrated character actors, the mighty Lance Henriksen. Mortensen paints a deeply personal and seemingly autobiographical portrait of a stormy father son relationship here, a dynamic put to the absolute test in its twilight years as dementia throws a curveball. Henriksen is Willis Petersen, a conservative, sexist, crass, bigoted, bitter, flint-edged old goat whose emotional problems and inability to properly communicate made life extra tough on his wife and two kids growing up on a farm in chilly upstate New York. He is now a snowy haired senior citizen who can barely remember what day it is, and journeys with his grown up son John (Mortensen; patient, restrained, meticulously pensive until the breaking point) to live with him, his husband (Terry Chen) and their young daughter (Gabby Velis) in sunniest California. Willis is utterly and completely out of his element in this setting, while John, his family and the rest of the city do their best to ignore, endear and diplomatically deflect his brittle onslaught of angry, bigoted, rude and altogether inappropriate behaviour. Willis is a tough cookie to love or care for, especially in this golden age of hyper-tolerance, but Henriksen, in an absolute career best tour de force, makes him not just another angry old man but a human being who is so scared of dying, losing his memories of life and slipping away from the life affirming groove of his routine that he’s lashing out at basically everyone around him. Except for his young granddaughter, his relationship with her is perhaps the only genuinely warm-hearted and easygoing interaction he allows himself to inhabit. Mortensen masterfully edits together their present day life in Cali with picturesque, auburn laced and earthen flashbacks to Upstate NY where we see a young Willis (Sverrir Gudnason) raise John and his sister, struggle to be there for them without letting his flaws run amok and navigate through two marriages, one to the children’s sensitive mother (Hannah Gross) and later to another (Bracken Burns). Laura Linney gives a reliably focused and mesmerizing turn as Willis’s grown up daughter, who does everything she can not to get emotionally compromised by her father’s issues, and there’s a sly cameo from Viggo’s longtime pal David Cronenberg as a stoic butt doctor whose scene with Willis highlights some of the films coarse black humour, often at the expense of his son’s homosexuality as John himself looks on in almost unfathomable patience. It’s easy to condemn and dismiss a difficult character like Willis, but Mortensen’s complex direction and Henriksen’s volcanic yet finely shaded nuance refuse the viewer in drawing such hasty, narrow conclusions. Mortensen’s surreal editing, fluidly washed transitions, the wonder of the natural world and the magic of music to remind us that human beings are never just one thing and that a seemingly lost, scared and downright mean old man is still capable of compassion, patience and a modicum of self reflection, even in the eleventh hour. This is an astonishing film and a staggering debut for any filmmaker of any background with a central performance by Lance that anoints his entire epic career with that one last minute entry to crown it all, he and the film overall are truly magnificent.

-Nate Hill