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Lance Henriksen as Willis and Viggo Mortensen as John in Falling (2020)

Falling is screening in cinemas in the UK and streaming online via Modern PicturesBFI Player and Curzon Home Cinema.

Of the many actors not yet turned directors, polymath Viggo Mortensen always seemed a likely candidate to move behind the camera. He is equally at ease in blockbuster fantasy (the Lord of the Rings trilogy, 2001-03), offbeat indies (Captain Fantastic, 2016) and arthouse (Jauja, 2014), and his multi-faceted, creative curiosity has led him to poetry and photography as well as setting up his own independent publishing house. The same probing spirit perhaps inspired this writer-directorial debut – he also composed the spare, piano-led score – an intimate examination of his own troubled heritage.

Though Mortensen has highlighted the family parallels, Falling isn’t strictly autobiographical. Indeed, one hopes there’s considerable artistic licence taken in portraying toxic, ailing patriarch farmer Willis. An attempt by his long-suffering gay son John (Mortensen) to relocate him to urban California is a blue rag to this Red State bully.

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Falling (2020)

Dad may be bad, but he offers veteran actor Lance Henriksen a rare lead role. So long effective in genre support (notably a serene android in Aliens 1986, and a hillbilly vampire in Near Dark, 1987), Henriksen seizes his moment, evidently relishing Willis’s terrorising diatribes: California is “for cocksuckers and flag-burners”; Picasso was a “Commie greaseball that painted like a retard”. Homosexuals, non-Caucasians and, especially, women get equally ugly appraisals. Yet Henriksen also subtly conveys the pitiful victimhood and fear beneath the bluster, festering long before the dementia that confuses wives, even the living and the dead, took hold.

Willis’s faltering consciousness is Mortensen’s chief conduit for revealing, in flashback, the cyclical, slow poisoning of family relationships. A verbal assault on John today triggers a public humiliation of wife Gwen decades earlier. A present-day rant is interrupted by younger Willis (nicely underplayed by Borg vs. McEnroe actor Sverrir Gudnason) ruthlessly silencing domestic dissent. Bucolic landscape and wildlife close-ups offer moments of respite, though these frequent inserts can seem strangely random, disconnected from any one perspective, even Willis’s. It’s as if the film itself is infected, fragmented, by his senility.

This free-floating structure might be true to dementia’s gruelling treadmill but it is as exhausting for audiences as for Willis’s family. It also stalls the type of cumulative power harnessed by other masters of cinematic memory mosaics, such as Terence Davies or Terrence Malick.

Still, a potent, climactic confrontation, and enigmatic coda, do allow a brief sense of catharsis. And if a lasting connection often feels as out-of-reach and opaque as Willis himself, Mortensen’s generosity to his characters and actors, including cameos by Laura Linney and director David Cronenberg, and his sincere investment in the film’s emotional excavation are always clear.

Further reading

Viggo Mortensen on watching widescreen epics in 1960s Buenos Aires

For our My Dream Palaces campaign, Viggo Mortensen fondly recalls childhood trips to luxurious Argentinian cinemas and champions the importance of movie-going through the long winter of the pandemic.

By Viggo Mortensen

Viggo Mortensen on watching widescreen epics in 1960s Buenos Aires

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