2020 appears to be the year director’s tackle the poignant topic of dementia, particularly following Natalie Erika James’ horror Relic and Harry Macqueen romantic drama Supernova. And there is the upcoming sure-fire Oscar contender, The Father (starring Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman) as well. Falling marks the directorial debut of Viggo Mortensen, who also wrote and scored the film. The festival hit, which received acclaim at its world premiere in January at the Sundance Film Festival, is loosely inspired by the director’s experiences caring for his parents in their final days.
As farmer Willis (Lance Henriksen) exhibits progressively worse symptoms of dementia, his son John (Viggo Mortenson) attempts to help him find a retirement property near his own family in Los Angeles. However as the two spend more time together, their differing views become far more apparent, particularly as Willis refuses to come to terms with and accept the failings and mistakes of his past.
Falling is a deeply personal and honest portrayal of how dementia affects individuals and the relationships with those who care for them. Mortensen and Henriksen vividly animate the often difficult, confusing and fragmented conversations and moments. Heavily based on his own experiences, the drama is predominantly an emotional yet sincere watch. As someone who’s witnessed the progressive deterioration of a loved one, this is certainly a relatable and affecting representation.
Thematically, there’s certain similarities to Alan Ball’s Uncle Frank, with the director also highlighting the impacts strained father-son relationships can have. Generational differences, along with antiquated views on sexuality and masculinity, have long culminated in unexpressed hurt and anger in the soft-spoken John. Mortensen brings an impressive subtlety and patience to the role; earnestly demonstrating that despite all of the insults and abuse, John still has the prevailing compassion to love and care for Willis during his final years.
The complicated central relationship is hugely compelling, thanks in part to the tour de force performance from Veteran Lance Henriksen (Alien vs Predator, Terminator.) Willis is often wildly unpredictable and hugely inappropriate, exclaiming shocking comments such as “Florida is for cock suckers and flag burners.” This unrelenting barrage particularly comes to the forefront at an uncomfortable family dinner as he persistently lashes out. Yet under the hostility, there’s still flashes of affection and even humour, particularly when it comes to his granddaughter.
While not much actually happens throughout, mundane events such as check ups at the doctor (featuring a bizarre David Cronenberg cameo) and meals out, slowly build up to an emotionally charged scene in which John finally confronts his father over the years of unspoken hurt and abuse. It’s here where Mortensen finally gets to shine, as the two go head to head in a hugely impactful exchange, ending in a gut wrenching embrace.
Falling unravels as more of a character study and acting showcase, and while that approach might not be for everyone, there’s no denying the impressive craft of Mortensen’s direction. The non-linear approach to the narrative is bold; he flits around with the timeline, interspersing flashbacks throughout exploring the complicated father-son relationship. The beautiful cinematography from Marcel Zyskind and the score also from Mortensen, adds an interesting juxtaposition to the painful childhood memories.
Featuring a career best performance from Henriksen, Falling is a touching and contemplative drama exploring life, love and forgiveness. While the open ending (which could be interpreted differently by different people) doesn’t quite land, this is a striking directorial debut for Mortensen.
Available in UK cinemas and virtual cinemas from Friday 4 December 2020.