There are just about as many stories about what led actors to direct films as there are films directed by actors. Though I’m always tempted to see a move into directing as a kind of hubristic decision (giving themselves a role they wouldn’t get otherwise, on either side of the camera), the fact is that actors direct for a variety of reasons and motivations. Viggo Mortensen’s Falling is neither the type of film that would not have gotten made with Mortensen at the helm (though, as the sole writer and director, it’s not like the movie would’ve gotten made in any other context) nor a film that feels like it comes from a place of vanity, though it’s clearly very personal for Mortensen. Grappling with issues of toxic masculinity and strained familial relationships, Falling isn’t exactly treading on virgin territory, but there’s an honesty and openness to the film that sets it apart from yet another bad-dad narrative.
John Peterson (Viggo Mortensen) lives with his husband (Terry Chen) and daughter (Gabby Velis) in California, but his upbringing was a rural one. John grew up on a farm, hunting and fishing with his rough father Willis (played as a young man by Sverrir Gudnason and in the present day by Lance Henriksen), mother (Hannah Gross) and sister. Willis is now in his early 80s and a two-time widower who is slipping into the early stages of dementia. Hoping to bring him closer and alleviate him of the burden of the farm, John decides to help his father find a home in California, something that the perpetually grumpy, homophobic, racist and generally unpleasant Willis does not approve of.
Falling is framed by a series of flashbacks to John’s childhood, where his relationship with his father is slowly chipped away by the man’s growing resentment at the world and his lack of acceptance of John moving away, ever so minutely, from his own prescribed notions of manhood. There’s a world of difference between the Willis who greets his infant with an apology (“Sorry for bringing you into this world just so you could die”), the Willis who knocks his teenage son off a horse and the aged Willis who, his grip on sanity inching out of reach, lashes out at everyone and everything — but he remains the same man, bruised and wounded from a lifetime of hard-earned conformity.
It’s a difficult role to write and even more to pull off, because the unpleasant, cyclical nature of Willis’s rage at the world forms much of the film’s structure. This isn’t a movie about a curmudgeonly old coot who learns to change his worldview thanks to his liberal gay son; it’s a movie about an old man hurtling towards death who can’t really reconciliate the love he once had and the hate he now has towards everything that didn’t work out. This all takes the form of many unpleasant and repetitive tirades from Willis, who reserves the only care and love he has for his youngest granddaughter. (He could care less about his daughter — played by Laura Linney — and her blue-haired, goth children.) The fascinating thing about Willis, however, is that he isn’t estranged from his family. He still somehow hangs out with them semi-regularly and they still somehow tolerate his hateful diatribes.
There are aspects of Willis and his troll-like curmudgeonly personality that don’t entirely work. While I can buy that an old man who lives alone in a mouldy farmhouse is perhaps not up on the latest slang, gossip and recent developments in social justice, Willis sometimes comes across like a particularly ornery time-traveller who is discovering the modern world for the first time. As the film is essentially predicated on a series of rants and arguments featuring Willis, there are times where the character’s motivations seem rather predicated on the scene required rather than the opposite. It’s a difficult balance to strike — a man who is filled with spite and hatred but still has enough of a spark of goodness in him to give others hope — and Mortensen (and, by definition, Henriksen himself) sometimes stray a little too far into caricature.
Nevertheless, there’s a real poignancy and sensitivity to the proceedings, even if the film’s many top-volume arguments and gauzily nostalgic flashbacks can sometimes recall the most histrionic works of Xavier Dolan. Still, if Mortensen is going to try his hand at queer cinema, he could certainly ape worse subjects. I’m sure there’s an argument to be made that this isn’t Mortensen’s story to tell; as far as I know, Mortensen isn’t queer, and yet the film feels so queasily personal in spots that one wonders if the character’s sexual orientation isn’t a buffer willingly put there by Mortensen to keep this film personal but not autobiographical. More importantly, Falling isn’t a story about queer suffering, and Willis’s disapproval of his son’s sexuality fits in with his black-hearted disapproval of just about everything else.
There’s admittedly a surface-level sheen of middlebrow respectability to Falling that suggests exactly the type of well-meaning liberal festival film that Mortensen last had a hit with. It’s true that, on the surface at least, Falling has a thoroughly opening-night-of-TIFF vibe; it promises some kind of two-hander between a wacky homophobe and his patient gay son, which is not really anywhere near what Falling winds up being. Falling probes at a generational divide that applies just as much to my (formerly) long-haired hippie dad as it does to Mortensen’s sober airline pilot character. If one could argue it’s not the most socially relevant subject to tackle in this day and age, the fact is that at its best, it remains a wrenching, raw and moving piece of work. ■
Falling is available on VOD Friday, Feb. 5. For more details about the film, please visit its IMDB page. Watch the trailer here:
For more film and TV coverage, please visit the Film & TV section.