Falling (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): An angry bitter old man and his good son

Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut film “Falling” is a somber and melancholic drama which mainly revolves around a strained relationship between one angry bitter old man and his good son. While often observing how unlikable and unpleasant this old dude really is in many aspects, the movie also lets us understand him to some degree, and we come to overlook several notable weak elements in the film as appreciating two different strong performances at its center.

Lance Henriksen, whom many of you remember for his memorable supporting turn in “Aliens” (1986), plays Willis Peterson, an aging New York state rancher who has lived alone in his ranch for years since his family members left him in one way or another. Although he has no problem with living alone by himself as before, his health condition has been considerably deteriorated during recent years, and that is why his gay son John, played by Mortensen, is taking him to California for helping him get any nice residence closer to John and his sister’s homes in California.

Willis certainly does not like this change at all, and his spiteful mind, which already shows some possible signs of dementia, does not help this situation much. In the middle of the flight to California, he suddenly lashes out at his son for no apparent reason, and he often does not seem to be conscious of where he is at present. John tries to be patient as much as he can, but his cranky father continues to annoy and exasperate him even after they finally arrive in California, and he does not get softened at all even when he comes to John’s house, where John has happily lived along with his nurse husband Eric (Terry Chen) and their Latino adopted daughter. As your average hardcore conservative Republican, Willis does not approve much of John’s liberal political viewpoint or his gay marriage, and he naturally makes some rude comments, but John remains mostly tactful and patient with his father even at that point.

As Willis and his son keep pushing and pulling each other, the movie often goes back to those old times along with either of them. During the opening scene of the movie, we see younger Willis, played by Sverrir Gudnason, and his first wife Gwen (Hannah Gross) arriving in their house along with their young son, and we soon come to gather that he was not a very good father or husband. While he could be fairly nice to his son during their outdoor activities, Willis was often driven by his toxic concept of masculinity, and this negative aspect of his inevitably affected his relationships with the people he was supposed to love and care about. The gap between him and his children were widened as his children grew up, and Gwen eventually left him along with their kids after being quite suffocated and frustrated with his pettiness and stubbornness.

Although many years have passed since that point, Willis still has lots of spite and resentment toward not only Gwen but also his second wife Jill (Bracken Burns), who did understand and love him but subsequently left him just like Gwen. When he happens to have a supposedly cordial family meeting with John, his sister, and their respective family members, he suddenly rambles about his past, and he surely embarrasses everyone else at the spot as casually wielding his crude bigotry and misogyny in front of them.

During its third act, Mortensen’s screenplay moves back to Willis’ ranch along with him and his son, and the movie focuses more on the accumulating tension and strain between these two characters. As being more aware of losing the control over his life, Willis becomes more aggressive and obnoxious than before, and, not so surprisingly, John consequently finds himself at the limit of his steady patience and tolerance, though it is implied that this is not his first emotional rodeo with his grumpy father.

While the movie, which is incidentally dedicated to Mortensen’s two family members, is not exactly an autobiographical tale, Mortensen, who also served as its co-producer as well as its composer (He actually played the piano on the soundtrack, by the way), clearly cares a lot about the story and characters, and that is evident from his sensitive direction. As John and Willis’ minds are frequently taken back to their past, cinematographer Marcel Zyskind gives us a number of poetically meditative landscape shots, and these shots accentuate more how much both John and Willis are haunted by their past in each own way.

Mortensen draws good performances from himself and the other main cast members in the film. Henriksen surely has a number of juicy character moments as expected, but he also brings some genuine human nuances and details to his character, and we come to have more understanding of John’s love/hate relationship with his father. On the opposite, Mortensen wisely underplays his character’s mixed feelings toward Willis, and he ably complements his co-star during several key scenes in the film. While Hannah Gross, Bracken Burns, and Sverrir Gudnason are well-cast in their respective roles, Laura Linney dexterously handles her character’s emotional turmoil during her brief appearance, and Terry Chen is also fine as John’s loving husband, though his character is the least developed character in the film.

Overall, “Falling” is rather modest in terms of achievement, but Mortensen makes a fairly good directorial debut here at least. Although it sometimes stumbles due to its rather thin and repetitive narrative in addition to being less impressive than Florian Zeller’s “The Father” (2020), it is still worthwhile to watch mainly thanks to Mortensen and Henriksen, and I assure you that they will not disappoint you at all.

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