Falling Review: Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut is an excruciating melodrama about fatherhood | Sundance 2020

Viggo Mortensen has starred in many avant-garde dramas about troubled middle-aged men, but Falling is the veteran actor’s first time directing and writing is own film, as well as starring in it, naturally. His first movie is a personal one, as it’s inspired by real-life conflicts with his own father, and it explores how generational bitterness can sometimes find no remedy or easy solution, even for men at a certain age.

Mortensen plays John, an airline pilot living in California with his husband (Terry Chen) and daughter (Gabby Velis). Their lives are upended when John is forced to move his grandfather Willis (Lance Henriksen) out of his rural farm on the east coast due to his failing health and onset dementia. 

One of the film’s more inventive structural devices is to use Willis’s difficulty with memory as a way to deliver ample flashbacks out of order, so the audience can slowly get absorbed in all the complicated backstory. The problem, however, is that Willis is too thoroughly mean-spirited, foul-mouthed, and unapologetically bigoted and homophobic for us to care all that much about what happens to him. Especially after nearly two hours of being forced to sit through his constant chaos. 

Falling isn’t exactly true to its name because the action never really rises or falls. Each scene is a repetition of Willis boiling into anger over his current situation and loss of independence. The struggle between father and son is almost always one-sided, with John consistently failing (but always retrying) to defuse each and every blowup. It seems like no matter their surroundings, Willis’s innate selfishness always has to cause a scene.

There’s a positive takeaway in Falling about the seemingly supernatural patience needed to endure the irreconcilable differences between family members. But the film’s frequent flashbacks never quite flesh out the continued affection John chooses to maintain for a man he clearly resents and for good reason. 

In fact, a few key revelations later in the film imply something so deeply, unforgivably dark and putrid involving Willis that it beggars belief when this topic is pushed aside with at least 30 minutes still remaining, never to be raised again. At some point, John forcing the rest of his family to deal with his father’s immensely toxic behavior is a human flaw unto itself, but the film never bravely reaches that far into nuance.

When it comes down to it, these characters just aren’t enjoyable to watch, though with few exceptions, mainly because they’re forced to react constantly to Henriksen’s off-putting performance. It’s a wonderfully realized role, to be sure, but the writing lacks the subtlety and wit needed to prove this man deserves even a second of sympathy. 

Mortensen does succeed, however, when it comes to the performance and writing of his own character, who is far more complex and fascinating when interacting with everyone who isn’t his father.


An ongoing thread of the film is Willis’s inability to cope with what happened between him and his children’s mother (Hannah Gross). His flashbacks almost always feature her, even when she doesn’t technically appear, but one of the film’s final moments is a true display of vulgar recollection certainly befitting a man so hateful. Falling isn’t a flashy film trying to do too many different things at once like many other directorial debuts of its kind, but it might as well have been shot in black and white. That way, we would have at least gotten some shades of gray.

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