It’s a testament to Viggo Mortensen’s restless and singularly creative spirit that nobody could possibly predict the subject of his directorial debut, and perhaps an even greater testament that “Falling” immediately makes sense as the kind of movie that the modern poet, abstract painter, experimental musician, prolific anthropologist, septilingual traveler, Oscar-winning “Green Book” accomplice, and rightful King of Gondor would feel compelled to make. And David Cronenberg’s cameo as a frustrated proctologist is somehow least among the reasons why.
Ostensibly a drama about a married gay liberal who struggles to care for his homophobic father during what might be the final days of his life, Mortensen’s first effort behind the camera never settles into the expected grooves of its genre or premise. On the contrary, the film vibrates at its own unrecognizable frequency as soon as it starts, and only allows for easy categorization during the clunkier moments when it bumps against clichés like a boat that would rather crash into lighthouses than use them for guidance.
The result is a movie that baffles and enthralls in equal measure, and seldom lingers anywhere in between. 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 — of the heavens people reach in their own happiness, of the intangibles that cause some of them to lose their balance, and of the gravity that sends them plummeting down to the earth until they’re buried in it.
Inspired by the deaths of Mortensen’s parents and the time he spent looking after them in those confused final years, “Falling” begins with one of the flashbacks that are laced throughout the movie, as a man and his wife bring their newborn baby home from the hospital sometime in the middle of the 20th century. Alone with his son for the first time, the father leans over the crib and says something that many people have thought in that moment, but very, very few have probably said aloud: “I’m sorry I brought you into this world, so that you could die.” And with that, the baby starts crying. Get used to it, kiddo —“Falling” isn’t here to make friends.
In the film’s “present” timeline (actually set in the aftermath of the 2008 election), the circle of life is almost complete and the son has assumed responsibility for his father. It’s not an easy job. Willis (Lance Henriksen, feral and fully committed as a widower shipwrecked on the jagged rocks of his own senility) has grown into a vituperative old man who decided to only look for the worst in people at a certain point in his life and has been stuck in a tailspin ever since. It’s hard to know where his natural hostility towards other people ends and the foul-mouthed violence of his cognitive decline begins, but anyone who’s cared for someone with dementia knows all too well that losing sight of that line is the last thing that happens before love curdles into resentment.
Having said that, “Falling” is the rare film that makes it more difficult to see that border as it goes along, and eventually you can’t help but wonder if Willis is just a huge asshole who’s suffering from some routine memory loss and the misogynistic streak that plagued so much of the Silent Generation. The strength of Henriksen’s high-key but nuanced performance is that it’s ultimately too untamed and self-possessed for a diagnosis to be relevant, let alone right.
John (Mortensen) meanwhile seems to have been forged in direct contrast to his dad: He’s a soft-spoken, tightly contained, health-conscious liberal who lives in a nice California home with his Chinese-Hawaiian husband (the inimitable Terry Chen), their adopted Latina daughter (Gabby Velis), and an Obama sticker on the fridge. You can imagine his discomfort when Willis flies into an epithet-filled screaming jags on a red-eye flight out West, a scene that Mortensen punctuates with flashbacks of young John and his dad hunting together.
With a bitter, malformed hint of the associative poetry that ribbons together a memory piece like Terence Davies’ “The Long Day Closes,” Mortensen alternates from a shot Henriksen slouched on an airplane toilet to glimpse of young John playing in the bath with the duck he shot. Later, he will do the same with a scene of Willis taking a shit on a different toilet and snippets of young John playing with a snake.
The film is often loopy and a little perverse in the ways that it looks for the dissonance between the present and the past, but “Falling” — even at its most vertiginous — is told with a consistency of vision that suggests Mortensen knew exactly what he was trying to find. Despite the film’s anti-dramatic strangeness and the constant hostility of Henricksen’s fire and brimstone performance (which bleeds out through a series of never-ending rants against Asians, gays, and women, women, women), every scene is lined with a soft underbelly and sometimes even a light touch of humor. Even the uncomfortable family lunch featuring Laura Linney in full “Love Actually” mode as John’s flustered sister is rooted in something real. Stilted, but real.
Mortensen is nothing if not sincere. “Falling” is such a bespoke piece of filmmaking, and Mortensen so entwined in the fabric of its story, that it’s no surprise to learn that he even composed the delicate score himself. The clumsy flashbacks — some evocative, most prescriptive — are unmoored from either Willis or John’s perspective in a way that makes them feel as if they’re only being remembered by the man behind the camera.
As the film spirals deeper into itself over the course of a dreamy second half that kills time while collapsing it, the specifics of Willis and John’s relationship grow considerably less compelling than the question of what Mortensen was trying to synthesize from them. Is this a portrait of a man trying to defy his father’s enraged idea of masculinity, even when it’s the only part of his father that’s left? Is it a study of how time moves through people, their bodies dissolving even as their minds are borne back ceaselessly against the currents? A fiery climactic showdown entertains both of these readings and any number of others without necessarily entertaining, itself.
More impactful is the non-linear montage that follows, and eventually leads to the film’s sensual, baffling farewell. It’s here, in its most potent and concentrated form, that Mortensen’s unique sense of poetry is liberated from the inertia of a plot that is never quite able to translate it for the rest of us. And it’s here that “Falling” finally gets off the ground.
“Falling” played at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.