Falling

 

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An insightful view of family life and of a man of a certain kind.

 
Falling

Lance Henriksen and Viggo Mortensen

 

Falling is not only the latest film to star Viggo Mortensen but also the first that sees him credited as writer and director and indeed as composer of the music score too. For a debutant filmmaker it is a remarkably assured work and an ambitious one as well, despite which some critics have been surprisingly harsh on it. Two factors may have contributed to that, one being that the central character, Willis Peterson (Lance Henriksen), is an exceedingly dislikable old man given to homophobic and racial abuse and the other arising from the fact that by playing Willis's gay son, John, Mortensen is violating the beliefs of those who assert that you have to be gay to play gay and to tell a story such as this.

 

The latter point is based on a premise that I don’t happen to share and in any case Falling is not a work that I would categorise as a gay movie (it is far more about Willis than it is about John). As for Willis being deeply unsympathetic, that is certainly the case but, as played by Henriksen, he is utterly believable and Falling offers a detailed study of the man that is of value in its own right. Mortensen has stressed the fact that Willis is suffering from dementia, that being a condition that he has encountered in his own family. That has doubtless added to his understanding of how difficult it is when it comes to handling somebody who confuses past and present as well as ensuring that his portrayal of Willis's condition is so persuasive. But, just as John's relationship with his Chinese husband, Eric (Terry Chen), is not central to the film, neither is Willis's dementia. That's so even though it is a relevant factor and one which allows Mortensen in his portrayal of it to intercut flashbacks to John's childhood as an indication of how Willis is often reliving the past in his mind. It also enables us to learn something of John's mother, Gwen (Hannah Cross), who is dead but remains alive in Willis's head. Once flashbacks have been introduced in this particular context it allows later memory shots to be incorporated more freely without seeming out of place.

 

By showing us Willis as both an old man and as a young husband (Sverrir Gudnason), Falling illustrates how we are all forever linked to our upbringing (the sense of family and its obligations even when the patriarch is as off-putting as Willis runs through this film). Furthermore, it is the combination of past and present that serves to bring out what is the true subject of Falling. At heart, Mortensen's film is a portrait of the kind of man who defines himself by his masculinity. It is that which makes Willis put down any woman who leaves him and causes him to talk in ways that continually hint at his own sexual potency. It's also the reason why he encourages the young John (Etienne Kellici) to shoot since a macho man needs to live on through a macho son. By turning out to be gay, John denies his father that source of pride and further encourages Willis's latent homophobia.

 

This characterisation is wholly convincing and Mortensen by showing the lonely, unhappy state to which Willis is brought expresses pity without ever softening the portrait. Willis properly remains obnoxious but the film's harsh centre is balanced by its sympathetic view of a gay marriage and by the warmth in the playing of Hannah Cross as the mother and of Laura Linney who has a small role as John's sister. Equally adroit are the performances of several child players and that must count as further evidence of Mortensen's directorial skills. Falling may not land a knockout punch, but it's arguably all the better for preferring to invite serious thought from viewers as they formulate their own responses to what the film has shown them.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Lance Henriksen, Viggo Mortensen, Sverrir Gudnason, Terry Chen, Hannah Cross, Laura Linney, Etienne Kellici, David Cronenberg, Gabby Velis, Bracken Burns, Piers Bijvoet, Ella Jonas Farlinger.

 

Dir Viggo Mortensen, Pro Daniel Bekerman, Chris Curling and Viggo Mortensen, Screenplay Viggo Mortensen, Ph Marcel Zyskind, Pro Des Carol Spier, Ed Ronald Sanders, Music Viggo Mortensen, Costumes Anne Dixon.

 

Perceval Pictures/Scythia Films/Zephyr Films/HanWay Films/Ingenious Media-Modern Films.
112 mins. Canada/UK/Denmark. 2020. Rel: 4 December 2020. Available in cinemas and on BFI Player. Cert. 15.