Sundance Review – Falling

Director: Viggo Mortensen
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Lance Henriksen Sverrir Gudnason, etc.
Cinematographer: Marcel Zyskind

Dealing with an elder family member with a fading memory and deteriorating health can take its toll on all parties. But what happens when on top of the burdens of being a caretaker, you’re forced to encounter bigoted thoughts and relive a history of emotional trauma and abuse?

In Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut, Falling, John must deal with these circumstances as his father’s mind becomes aggressively worse right before his very eyes. Forced to confront events that have torn them apart, John and Willis find themselves at odds with one another as they recall the drastic situations that led them to their fallout. Their confrontations lead to heartbreaking realizations in this emotional journey through rage, resentment and acceptance.

Throughout his career, Mortensen has taken on a plethora of characters with different personalities and viewpoints. This time around, his character John is at the center of ugly ones. John is the sensitive and caring son who has long left home to be with his partner Eric and daughter Monica. During his recent reunion with his father Willis, John is [far too] willing to ignore the constant nasty comments his father says to him. Since discovering his sexuality, his father Willis has questioned the truthfulness of John’s reality in such insensitive ways that it’s hard to picture why any son would stick around to help – blood or not. But in that regard, Mortensen delivers such a defining performance that is so capable of impacting many whose experience is similar. His character’s reservations is matched with a nuanced delivery of emotion that feels as passionate as it is affecting.

Falling - Still 5
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Lance Henriksen (who plays the father Willis) also gives the performance of a lifetime as he weaves in and out of reality. But it’s his commitment to being the world’s worst husband and father (and the greatest asshole) that warrants accolades. Even in the moment when his character finally reaches an emotional awakening, Henriksen delivers his lines with awe-inspiring impact. And through it, it’s hard to refuse his character of any sympathy despite being worthy of none of it.

In his approach to showcasing Willis’s (Lance Henriksen) troubled and deteriorating mind, there are multiple flashbacks and sequential fades to moments that trigger specific times & occurrences in Willis’s life. And just when you think the back and forth flashbacks from present to past [and present again] become too distracting, Mortensen elevates his storytelling and showcases his impressive skill. For instance, in a scene in which he pours Willis a glass of water, this very action triggers Willis’s memory of time spent at a flowing river. Examples like this occur often, but it’s a subtle yet profound way of demonstrating the perspective of losing your mind. And in moments like these, audiences will wonder why Mortensen hasn’t found his way behind the camera sooner in his career.

Falling - Still 3
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Part of what makes Falling work for me is its dedication to not hide the ugly truth in what could’ve been a story that settled for stereotypical character growth and a happy ending. But if truth be told, it’s also what makes Mortensen’s Falling a difficult watch.

Many will deem this project as one too insensitive, unnecessary and bigoted for anyone’s good. And they might be right. Why is it necessary to have characters that are so hateful? Why does storytelling centered around gay characters need to have an opposing bigot who challenges their existence? The truth is, stories don’t really need to; but ignoring them doesn’t stop this from being a reality among many families across the US (and around the world) either. That’s not to say that this isn’t a tough watch, but the reality is many of our grandparents have outdated and disgusting views. Whether they choose to learn, grow and accept people during the changing times is up to them. But to ignore that people like this exist, and worse- that LGBTQ+ have to deal with intolerant family members as such is negligence, and quite frankly irresponsible.

I do hope people give this a chance, though. Because despite its sensitive content, there’s a true beauty in this script. It’s a story about a man being tolerant to his intolerant father when he doesn’t have to be. It’s not about needing to be the bigger person, it’s simply a final reckoning of accepting our circumstances through healing.

Rating: ★★★

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