Family Strife

Viggo Mortensen has reputedly been trying to get his directorial debut made since the mid-1990s. On the evidence of Falling, it was worth the wait. A story that flashes between past and present, Mortensen plays in the contemporary sequences, as John Peterson, a gay man who lives with his husband (Terry Chen) and their adopted daughter in Los Angeles. Coming to stay with them is John’s father Willis (Lance Henriksen), an embittered fellow suffering from dementia.

The plan is for Willis to relocate from his rural farmstead in upstate New York to the warmer climes of California, and his trip is meant to be tied in with looking at property. But as Mortensen zeroes in on his stay, it’s anything but harmonious. Willis is an ill-tempered, vile character, spitting out racist, homophobic and sexist slurs at all and sundry. The only person he seems to have any affection for is his granddaughter, though he doesn’t curtail his bilious behaviour around her.

Mortensen also cuts back to Willis’ past (where he is played by Sverrir Gudnason), to his early days as a father and a time when his wife (Hannah Gross) was still alive. It’s a film about bitterness, jealousy and resentment, and the way these emotions can fester and scar a person’s soul. Is there any hope here? Any sign of redemption for the aged Willis, as dementia increasingly bites into his mind? It’s hard to say, but – if nothing else – he’s brought a wonderful son into the world.

A domestic drama, Falling takes place around dinner tables a great deal – with Laura Linney popping up in a punchy part as John’s equally liberal sister, who similarly has absolutely no idea how to handle her appalling father. There’s also an amusingly wry cameo from David Cronenberg, who previously directed Mortensen in A History of Violence, Eastern Promises and A Dangerous Method, as a proctologist who gives Willis an examination.

Really, though, the film belongs to Henriksen. The veteran actor famed for roles in such 1980s classics as The Terminator and Aliens (where he memorably played the android Bishop) he has never had a role like Willis. It’s brave and ballsy, right from the opening scene when he’s abusing fellow passengers on an airplane. It will literally leave you in disbelief at times. As for Mortensen, this film makes you eager to see him go back behind the camera again.

Falling is available in cinemas and via virtual screenings from 4 December. For more details, click here.

James Mottram