In 1984, Viggo Mortensen debuted as a Lieutenant in a George Washington miniseries. Since then, he’s portrayed a once and future king in the Tolkein universe, a father navigating the apocalypse, a Russian hitman, and a prejudiced personal driver. However, until now, he’s never directed. And though an accomplished author, “Falling” marks Moretensen’s first screenplay to successfully enter into production as well. The film—for which he stars as John, the gay son of Willis (Lance Henriksen)—hopes to demonstrate the love between father and son rising above bad memories and horrific political differences. Nevertheless, it ultimately crashes into a heap due to a host of rambling non-connective ideas and tonally grating dialogue.
Willis, a crass doddering father, is traveling with his son John to California. Barely lucid, he’s a mean drunk. A terrible father. Racist, misogynistic, and homophobic. Willis clearly suffers from some form of dementia, but it’s not the illness that causes his often verbally abusive outbursts. Willis is just an asshole. And John desperately wants to find his father a home where he can be cared for, even if it’s more than what he deserves.
“Falling” relies on intercutting flashbacks to show the deterioration of John and Willis’ relationship. For instance, as a kid in one, John shoots his first duck with his father. In another, as a teen, he hunts a deer. Initially, Willis is a kind, warmhearted father and husband to his wife Gwen (Hannah Gross), but as the family drama wears on, the flashbacks demonstrate Willis becoming increasingly violent and aggressive, with no explanation, to the point of divorcing Gwen and marrying Jill (Bracken Burns) and starting his abusive behavior once again. It’s never obvious whose point-of-view these recountings stem from, and often the actions between past and present are disconnected thematically and visually. At one point, Willis goes to the bathroom in the present-day and editor Ronald Sanders then cuts to the duck shooting scene. The whiplash outcropping from the intercutting only serves as a tasting for the antagonistic dialogue that follows.
John lives with his husband Eric (Terry Chen) and their daughter Monica (Gabby Velis). Though John is white and Eric is Asian and Hawaiian, they both speak Spanish with their daughter, which is never explained and, therefore, logically doesn’t make any sense. In any case, while Willis often finds some decorum and grandfatherly tenderness with Monica, around John and Eric he explodes in homophobic tirades. “Do you imagine sucking dicks?” he asks his son when inquiring about his sex life. In another scene, Willis believes dipping your feet into water can give you “the AIDs.” And in others, he doesn’t want to be touched by “California fairies.” Even so, the harshest scenes occur around the dinner table, and often lack any nuance or purpose. Especially since John makes it known that he’s not going to react to his father. The effect is a gushing spout without a drain. It’s John taking abuse for nearly two hours with no end in sight, making “Falling” an exhausting and mirthless watch.
In any case, as with any family melodrama, Willis’ overall health is failing. He also has colon cancer, which requires surgery. David Cronenberg (Mortensen has appeared in three of his films) makes a brief cameo as a proctologist in these scenes. But even in the desperate hospital sequences, Willis is an emotionally hollow man. And considering his surgery required part of his colon to be taken out, and his chest stapled together, he is the stuffed man.
Through all of these needlessly tumultuous scenes, Henriksen provides a full-throated performance. Completely dedicated to the role, he adds a modicum of sense to the senseless vulgarity of his character. Meanwhile, Mortensen is uneven in his portrayal. Maybe directing and starring took too much of a toll, but there are instances where the three-time Oscar nominee lacks urgency in may of his most melodramatic responses. Even the insertion of Laura Linney’s Sarah (the sister of John), and her family, doesn’t provide any additional emotional weight.
In some fashion, “Falling” is a worse version of Clint Eastwood’s “The Mule”—another film about a problematic elderly white man left alienated from his family and the modern politically correct world. But while Eastwood provided his character with a semblance of lucidness, aware of his failings but comfortable with his worst qualities, Willis’ dementia and harsher tone don’t couch him into any grander themes about aging or America today. Instead, he’s just an asshole. And for that reason, even when John does cathartically unload on his father, the final moments of “Falling” provide no emotional resolve. Instead, it’s lurid and soulless. A shame, because “Falling” is a passion project for Mortensen. But the passion never translates. [C-]