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Directorial Debut Falling is a Difficult Tale of Unreciprocated Familial
Jordan Raup, The Film Stage
A beautifully controlled drama about
age, memory and forgiveness.
Often abrasive, occasionally sweet,
and sometimes grasping for transcendence, "Falling" doesn't
feel like a story that Mortensen wanted to tell so much as it
does a deeply personal examination of human fragility. -- Rotten
"Falling" doesn't transform its emotional landscape into a simple question
of rejection or forgiveness. It's comfortable knowing that meanness and
affection can exist in the same person, and that tolerance, even when it only
flows in one direction, benefits both giver and recipient. -- Hollywood
Carving out a career that
seems wholly based on personal taste rather than following the whims of what an
audience may enjoy, Viggo Mortensen
earned ubiquitous recognition as Aragorn, and then followed it with no shortage of
fascinating projects, from his stellar David
Cronenberg collaborations to Lisandro
Alonso’s masterful Jauja to
John Hillcoat’s pitch-black, bleak tale The Road.
He’s now embarked on his feature
writing and directing debut Falling,
telling the story of a man’s difficult, life-long
relationship with his asshole of a father. Hewing more towards the
simplistic nature of Mortensen’s
recent acting roles, the drama is undeniably earnest in its approach, both when
it comes to the one-note script and the plain yet tender direction.
Mortensen is clearly attuned to the
emotional toll of maintaining such a relationship — loving
someone even if they don’t show any love back — but once this idea is firmly
laid out early on, the repetitive narrative doesn’t expand to reveal more layers
The most ambitious element of Falling is the structure, continually flipping
back and forth between the past and present. Mortensen details an early ‘60s upstate New York
upbringing with his character’s loving mother and hardscrabble father. This is
juxtaposed with a present-day trip accompanied by his elderly father, who
currently lives an isolated, difficult life tending to their family farm.
Dementia is setting in for his father and as his son, John, Mortensen needs to
remind him that his trip to the west coast where his children now reside is to
find a place to relocate to. Playing his father,
Willis, Lance Henriksen commits fully to the
grueling role, which carries with it a non-stop barrage of obscenities and
racial slurs, buried deep into his soul after being birthed into an America that
was despicably rooted in a xenophobic perspective.
Despite how John may try to open his father’s eyes to a
changing, progressive world, this isn’t a film in which he comes to realize his
errors and becomes a more empathetic human. From the first
frame to nearly the last Willis is an unrelenting terror, making fun of John’s
husband, who works as a nurse and the rest of the family. This includes John’s sister Laura Linney, who briefly appears and
feels strangely miscast. Her character’s bright and bubbly demeanor isn’t
new for the actress, but she feels out of step in trying to smooth over the
vileness Willis stirs up at a backyard meal and clashes with
the more patient rhythms Mortensen
This unceasing torrent of unpleasantness makes Falling a
hard film to fully embrace, even if it’s impressive to see
Henriksen so fully devote himself to such a nasty character. In
between the darkness, there are a few moments of levity. “When a guy my age thinks he has to pee, he already did,”
Willis says, earning a laugh.
As a writer-director, Mortensen
shows a clear-eyed vision–if a bit too much on the clear side. For an artist who
has hands in so many different mediums, he plays it a bit safe with unadorned
cinematography aside from a few nice Malickian montages.
A treacly piano
score playing over the most obvious of dramatic moments is also over-deployed.
On the editing side, some welcome experimentation is brought to the table. As we
jump around time periods – sometimes shot by shot inside a scene – we see how
past traumatic moments of smoking and dinner ordering inform the present.
In one elegant sequence, we see how the snow falling on the wedding day
of John’s parents is recalled later in his life with new
meaning. The script is also sprinkled with a few well-considered observations.
On the day Willis brought his son home, he remarks how
strange it is that he brought him into this world so he could die. Later, his
wife continually wishes he would just take off his shoes when he comes home,
which he never does, leaving her to pick up the dirt and planting the seeds of
the inattentiveness that will end up destroying their marriage.
In the present day, as Mortensen’s character puts in his daily effort to
give his dad a decent life and the benefit of the doubt, they meet a few
interesting characters. He may not be dreaming up any new directorial
collaborations with Mortensen, but
Cronenberg steals a scene as a doctor who gives
Willis a rectal exam and nods to his bodily fascinations,
clearly enjoying the procedure as he slips on his purple gloves and dives
Even if Mortensen has said this
isn’t really an autobiographical film, Falling wears its heart fully on its sleeve, so
much so that it loses a bit of complexity. The one-note, plodding narrative is
meant to trap us with a despicable person, and that frustration is felt as much
in Mortensen’s character as it is on
the part of the viewer.
As the film builds to a more outwardly dramatic
climax, there’s not a whole lot new learned along the way. A crotchety, racist
old man only vaguely learns his lesson and we surrender to the miniscule
character arc that takes nearly two hours. One gets the sense that Falling is a film Mortensen wanted to get out of his system before
moving on to something a bit more daring. Let’s hope we’re not mistaken, because
with his debut he shows mindful consideration behind the camera telling a story
that’s not terribly interesting.
Falling premiered at Sundance Film Festival.
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