I recall a creative writing class one autumn evening in 2012, and the tutor offering the advice not to be overly adventurous, instead to tell a familiar and simple story well. It’s a sentiment that at some point feels true to Viggo Mortensen‘s directorial feature debut, Falling (2020), until it isn’t any longer. We discover the simple narrative shell encases rich emotions and a history of personal memories in the form of flashbacks.
The film is dedicated to his two brothers, Charles and Walter, and finds its roots in their upbringing and relationship with their parents. Mortensen plays John Petersen, who lives with his partner Eric (Terry Chen) and their adopted daughter Monica in Southern California. His elderly father, Willis (Lance Henriksen), suffers from dementia. Unable to tend his farm, he travels to Los Angeles for an indefinite stay with John until he has found a place to retire on the West Coast.
“I’m sorry I brought you into this world… so you could die,” says the young Willis (Sverrir Gudnason), to his newborn son moments after they’ve returned home from the hospital. Mortensen opens the film with a mix of hope and existentialist despair. This will underpin the bond between father and son – glimmers of affection in a fractious relationship.
In the moments preceding these words, Willis is presented as a caring husband and father, although he’s a product of his time. John is born into a family dynamic that stubbornly follows traditional gender lines and family values.
Mortensen nurtures the troubled relationship through Willis’ inner emotional conflict. In one scene, the young John is horseback riding with his father, who tells him, unkindly, that he needs his hair cut because he “looks like a goddam girl”. In another scene, when the pair is hunting, John cannot pull the trigger and kill a deer, which Willis responds to with compassion and understanding. As with the crack in the pleasant and caring façade in the opening scene, Mortensen plays to the friction of this emotionally distant yet intimate bond.
Grady McKenzie as young John Peterson and Sverrir Gudnason as Willis (courtesy of Modern Films Entertainment)
On the surface Falling is a simple story, well written and made, with fine performances, and yet it remains a mystery until partway through. Is there anything more to it than a well-crafted object about a troubled family? It reminds me of Miroslav Mandić’s Slovenian drama Sanremo (2020), which also played at the 24th PÖFF Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.
Set in a nursing home for the elderly, Bruno (Sandi Pavlin) is in love with his co-resident, Duša (Silva Cusin), but he forgets her after each encounter. It’s an example of filmic storytelling that asks of us the simplest of things. It does not ask us to critique it, to plough its depths to discern why it’s aesthetically and emotionally pleasing, nor does it ask for us to discuss it with fevered passion. All it asks is to be heard – for us to hand ourselves over emotionally.
Falling is another film dealing with dementia and old age that asks this simplest of things. It’s an act of sharing, and similarly to Sanremo, Mortensen only asks us to listen and to feel. These insular films invite us into their characters’ personal space and do not seek to offer us melodramatic stories but offer a view of humans and how central memory is to our lives. In the case of Falling, dementia is an extension of the failure of men of a particular generation to communicate and engage with their thoughts and feelings.
It’s easy to praise Henriksen’s tour de force performance, overlooking Gudnason’s presence as the young Willis. While Henriksen’s eyes are more narrow, Gudnason’s could feel meek and kind, but he is overshadowed by his brooding character that harshens his gaze. The windows to his soul suggest that a gentler nature accompanies his cruelty, only it has taken a submissive role to his more dominant masculine sternness. The two actors deserve equal praise, but the sadness of Falling is that Gudnason will likely fall from the audience’s grace and into Henriksen’s shadow. This would be a grave and unfortunate oversight.
When Willis recounts his relationship with his own father, Mortensen shows his commitment to offering us emotionally complicated characters. He’s not interested in redeeming them and removing their flaws. Instead, he understands that what makes us human are our imperfections. They don’t necessarily make us attractive or likable, but they’re a part of who we are.
Lance Henriksen as Willis and Viggo Mortensen as John Peterson (courtesy of Modern Films Entertainment)
Willis offers an intriguing twist on how we perceive one another. It’s not about whether we condone someone’s actions, but whether we have the capacity for understanding and compassion even when we’re emotionally conflicted. This is especially true here when our natural sympathies lie with Willis’ children and his two ex-wives, Gwen (Hannah Gross), mother to John and Sarah (Laura Linney), and his second wife, Jill (Bracken Burns).
The revelation of his own upbringing is a brief moment, and we will never know whether it’s true. We should feel compelled to consider the idea of nature versus nurture. If we lack sympathy for Willis, does this reveal our habitual tendency to judge the person for how they act, without questioning why they are the way they are? Just as Willis’ mind twists his reality, regularly confusing Gwen and Jill in his angry rants, so too are we left with a murky perspective of the character.
By the film’s end, we have more questions than answers about John’s father and their relationship. As in most families, the different relationship dynamics can be difficult to rationally or intellectually explain, and so the film should end with a lack of clarity.
Mortensen’s feature debut is an emotionally challenging work that effectively navigates between enjoyment and appreciation. We laugh in moments — Willis’ description of Pablo Picasso is humorous and witty — and we also appreciate it as a story not to be enjoyed, per se, but to be emotionally moved by. It’s an assured directorial debut from Mortensen, but it remains one that we should be cautious about discussing too much. Some art requires us to feel and silently contemplate instead of engaging in fevered discussion, and Mortensen’s Falling is one such film.