Recently, we lost the great character actor Hall Holbrook, at the comfortable age of 95. Soon after, we lost the legendary Christopher Plummer, who managed to reach the age of 91 — not too shabby either. Every time an aging filmmaker or performer is mentioned on our newsfeeds, we fear the worst. They aren’t supposed to die. It doesn’t matter if they are retired. Those legends on the screen, who gave us so much pleasure in our youth and into our adulthood, deserve an eternity of luxury for it — though it would be nice to see them on screen once in a while, or in the case of a behind-the-scenes filmmaker, to see their name in the credits.
But as my father, a fellow cineast and professional pessimist, continuously reminds me whenever I come to visit, “in the next decade, we will lose so many of them. It’s unavoidable. Our cinematic heroes follow the same rules as we do.”
But let’s be honest, it’s not the prospect of death that makes old age terrifying, it’s decay, the dying of the light. It’s losing your vitality, both physically and mentally. It’s not being able to remember pertinent details in your life, loved ones that were so dear to you. To not be able to raise one’s endorphins through exercise, or how the simplest activity, such as walking up the stairs, can turn into a deathly endeavor. “Getting old sucks”, as my father, now in his late sixties, often repeats. And I’m afraid it does.
Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut, Falling, is partly about the decay of old age. The horrors of dementia, a mind lost in a quagmire of the past. But it also uses the subject of dementia to explore our relationship with memories, how it shapes our perception of the present moment.
More than that, Falling is an incredible work of cinematic fiction, an American family drama that rekindles the raw honesty of seventies filmmakers like John Cassavetes. It also features one of the greatest on-screen performances by legendary character actor, Lance Henriksen.
We Can’t Choose Our Fathers, Nor Our Sons
“I’m sorry I brought you into this world, just so you could die,” says Willis (Sverrir Gudnason), to his newly born son. This already indicates the dark mindset of his patriarchal figure, something that will only grow in time.
In the present, we see that Willis has morphed into a cantankerous old man (Lance Henriksen), who’s showing signs of early-onset dementia. His son, John (Viggo Mortensen), realizing his father won’t be able to take care of himself anymore, flies his father to his home in Southern California in order to help him with new arrangements.
Welcoming his father into his home means enduring his verbal abuse. Willis, a hardline conservative from a bygone era with a bigoted streak that would make Tucker Carlson blush, is completely different from his openly gay son, John. The fact that John also married a male nurse, Eric (Terry Chen), who isn’t white, only complicates the matter.
In their week together, we move back and forth into the past. Sometimes these memories stem from Willis’ fractured mind, other times they come from John. As John tries to make his father understand that things will be different, Willis continually refuses his support, determined to live on his own terms.
If you’re a film buff, you’ve likely seen the hardened face of Lance Henriksen. If you like your classic blockbusters, you’ve seen him as the kindly android Bishop in Aliens. If you like dumb action movie shlock, you’ve probably seen him as the villainous biker Chains Cooper in Stone Cold. You might have seen him as FBI consultant Frank Black, investigating all kinds of paranormal weirdness in the TV show, Millennium — a show that unlike The X-files, knew how to end with dignity. He’s also lent his gravelly voice for numerous cartoons, like The Legend of Kora. Hell, if you’ve wasted your time with cheap VOD horror sequels as I did, you might have seen him in that one Hellraiser movie the one co-starring a young Henry Cavill. (I’m not going to bother looking up the actual title because I’ve wasted enough time on that POS.)
Henriksen is a worker. An absolute legend. A man with incredible cinematic gravitas. It’s hard to keep your eyes off him when he’s on the screen. Usually, he gives a welcoming supporting performance, but in Falling, he finally has his hooks again on a meaty leading role.
As you can probably deduce from the above synopsis, Willis is not a particularly kind man. He’s openly xenophobic, racist, homophobic, and sexist. In the past, we can see that he’s been neglectful to his wife and children, has a tendency to drink too much, and is prone to destructive temper tantrums.
It’s noteworthy that Falling takes place during the first term of Obama’s presidency; naturally, Willis voted for McCain. Though Obama’s official stance regarding gay marriage was still in opposition, minorities and the LBGTQ community did feel that his candidacy would precipitate America’s progressive conversion. Willis, like many white Americans, obviously fears the changing of the guard, the transformation of America’s culture, and rallies against it. He feels that his “kind” is growing less and less significant.
With how John behaves around his father, taking his countless insults by stride, you can see he’s used to it. Yet at times, through Mortensen’s wonderful restrained performance, you can see how the occasional homophobic comment still hurts him.
It’s important to note that Falling is not about remorse. It’s not a redemption story. Perhaps a side of Willis does feel guilty about his past behavior, but regardless of his disease, he will simply never be able to own up to it. It’s too late for that. He’s been wallowing in his bigoted nonsense for far too long.
But, as is natural in the ways of human nature, Willis is not an entirely evil man. Despite his bigotry, there’s a lot of love as well. We see it especially in the way he behaves around his adopted granddaughter, comforting her, bonding with her when it comes to wetting the bed.
In Falling, we see Henriksen’s talents on full display. From uncomfortable close-ups to his aging face as he spurts out one offense comment after another, to the warmth he displays as he looks down on his granddaughter. It’s a complex and earnest performance, one that surely deserves the same accolades as Anthony Hopkins’ role in The Father. One scene in particular, in which Willis sits by the beach, reminiscing, enjoying the sun, is mesmerizing.
Though Henriksen has plenty of unforgettable performances in his career, Falling will certainly stand out among them.
The Past Dictates the Future
In an early flashback, we see a young Willis teaching his son to hunt ducks. The child manages to snatch his first kill on his first try, shooting the duck as he’s flying into the sky. The proud father encourages his son to retrieve the murdered animal from the river, using a derogatory term used against gay people in reference to the dead duck. In the present, we see that he uses this very word against his gay son.
The present continually intermingles with the past. It’s unavoidable. Falling‘s wondrous editing by Ronald Sanders emphasizes this. We see how the father is pulled back in the past, giving a glimpse at his fractured and damaged brain, the constant journeys into the past and present. The pouring of a glass of water can bring him back to an important memory. Willis relives these memories and it shapes his present reality. Mourning, happiness, rage, all these emotions can pass by each other in seconds.
The importance of memories and how they shape us can be seen with the secondary characters as well. We are all our memories; we can’t escape them. They tell stories of who we became to be. When Willis slams the table during an awkward barbecue argument, his daughter, Sarah (the always wonderful Laura Linney), now in her late forties, relives, if only for a few seconds, the same fear she felt of her father when she was a child. The pain doesn’t go away just like that. We have to live with it.
But the past also reveals that we can’t just blame his disease for his current abrasive character. The selfishness had always been there. In Falling‘s brief flashbacks, we see how behavior impacted his wife, as her son catches her crying by herself on the coach, a record playing muting the sound of her weeping for the whole household. While heavily pregnant, we see that she’s still being expected to clean up at the house, while the father sulks around the house, smoking, drinking beer, and complaining about the state of the world.
Just because Willis is sick, doesn’t make him a saint. Willis has a lot to make up for, but he’s too stubborn to face his demons. Many people watching Falling would probably think to themselves that they would let the old man croak by himself. It’s not hard to entertain this notion when faced with the film’s unrelenting depiction of Willis’ deplorable behavior, especially when it comes to his causal bursts of homophobic and racial epithets.
But of course, no matter what, John loves him. We can’t just abandon those we love. It’s not the way it should be. But how can you help someone who seemingly doesn’t want your help?
No Matter What
A lot of the runtime is filled with the mundane when it comes to dealing with a dementia-suffering parent: guiding the parent to the toilet; reminding the parent about the modern household; the parent wanders off, looking for something that is long lost; that occasional moment of clarity that makes it seem like nothing ever was wrong. Though I’m not privy to Mortensen’s private life, a lot of the film feels personal, and it wouldn’t surprise me that Mortensen witnessed the horrors of this disease firsthand.
There’s no beat of false drama. No sappy music during dramatic scenes. The soundtrack doesn’t try to manipulate you in how to feel. It’s not a showy debut, something it could have easily been with the subject matter. Even the period details, from clothes and décor, are done tastefully.
It’s not an entirely humorless film, however. Occasionally there are some laughs to be had with Willis’s excessive vulgarity, particularly his comments surrounding Picasso. Legendary director and frequent Viggo Mortensen’s collaborator David Cronenberg also has a humorous cameo as a proctologist — perfect casting if you ask me.
But it’s the honest depiction, not just of the disease but of the characters, that makes Falling special. There’s no revelatory flashback, no third-act surprise redeeming the father of all his misdeeds. Mortensen understands that real human drama isn’t that simple. There’s no grand transformation like that.
It shows the burden of caring for loved ones. It doesn’t matter how terrible they were, whether they never apologized for all the bad things they did to you, they are family. And no matter what, we will forever be connected to them.
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