The subject of dementia is something that can make a very particular movie. There can be moments of leaning into cliches, which take away from any sort of depth that could be had. What I can’t deny are the effective artistic choices Viggo Mortensen makes as a writer, director and lead star. We follow Mortensen as John Peterson living with his partner Eric (Terry Chen) and adopted daughter Monica (Gabby Veils) in Los Angeles. When John gets a visit from Willis (Lance Henriksen) looking for a place to live, the past ruptures back to the surface. In doing so a drama unfolds about the trials and tribulations of what it means to be a family. It definitely follows the beats you’d expect, but there’s an appreciation of what Mortensen is trying to accomplish.
What is most admirable about Mortensan’s directorial debut is his idea of a non-linear approach. Throughout the film, we jump back and forth between Young John, Willis, and their modern-day counterparts. Doing so creates a layer of tension but also allows us to learn about these characters. To clearly define the definition of the phrase “show, don’t tell,” “Falling” plays an angle that’s informative without handholding. We learn everything we need to know about these characters without anyone wagging their finger explaining things. This idea comes front and center particularly in the performance of Lance Henriksen and Viggo.
Moments of these actors getting a chance to get their feelings out in the open make for quite compelling cinema. The balancing act from the modern day to the past with Sverrir Gudnason as Young Willis, makes us oddly sympathize with Henriksen. Henriksen and Gudnason as our two versions of Willis are the strongest aspects of the film. As written, Willis is not what you’d consider being a likable character. What Mortensen does as a filmmaker allows us to sympathize with Willis, as a broken person. Gudnason’s young Willis is massively unlikeable but we consider older Willis as someone who’s broken and needs help. It is a meaningful combination that creates one of the best performances in Henriksen.
Viggo Mortensen as the sparring partner of Henriksen isn’t given much to do as a performer. His character of John is a well-rounded nice guy with his own issues, but the film never expands upon them. We learn what we do about John through Willis’s treatment of him as a young child, to a teenager. It’s quite admirable that Mortensen takes a step back and allows the rest of his cast to take center stage. The weight primarily resides on Henriksen and his confusion resulting in unbridled anger. There’s definitely an argument that can be made that the modern-day portions suffer from Henriksen yelling at anyone he comes across. What worked for me is how the editing lets us see two different perspectives. It’s a choice that won’t work for everyone, but you can’t deny its success in execution.
“Falling” is far from a perfect film, but it is effective. What made it work for me is its humane touch of Mortensen as a filmmaker. You can tell the attention to detail and moments of humanity in these tense sequences. It’s the sort of drama that creates genuine conflict from the character’s interactions. These interactions showcase a lead performance that’s slightly overpowering, but emotionally quite moving. As a first feature, it’s a very ambitious familial drama, that doesn’t quite hit the mark as strong as it could. What I can say is that I’m very eager to see what Mortensen does next as a filmmaker.
Watch the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TvE0ReOrPn0