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‘Falling’: A vexing issue detracts from Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut

The well-intentioned drama never makes the case why a decent man would stay close to his detestable father.

Willis (Lance Henriksen, left) has dementia and is growing more reliant on his son (Viggo Mortensen) in “Falling.”
Quiver Distribution

The actor Viggo Mortensen makes his directorial debut with “Falling,” one of three current movies (along with the upcoming Anthony Hopkins vehicle “The Father” and the Stanley Tucci-Colin Firth two-hander “Supernova”) about the onset of dementia and the enormously painful impact it has on not only the patient but also the family members around him.

Alas, though well-intentioned and photographed with a precise eye for detail, this is a distant third to those two fine films, despite the excellent work by Mortensen as a long-suffering son and by the chiseled-faced veteran character actor Lance Henriksen (“The Terminator,” “Aliens”) as his bitter, angry, homophobic and vile father, who has dementia and is no longer capable of living on his own.

And therein lies the insurmountable problem with “Falling”: It’s not that the illness has soured Henriksen’s Willis and somehow turned him into a cruel monster; as we learn in sepia-toned flashbacks, he’s always been a mostly terrible human being, and throughout the story, we can’t help but wonder why Mortensen’s John hasn’t cut ties with the old man decades earlier. (In one of the most bizarre scenes in recent movie history, the 5-year-old John, played by Grady McKenzie, is out hunting with his father, played by Sverrir Gudnason in the flashback sequences. Miraculously, the boy shoots and kills a duck and they bring it home, whereupon little John insists the dead duck is his to keep and TAKES IT INTO THE BATHTUB with him like a beloved toy, much to the amusement of his parents. Wait, what?!)

“Falling” opens with John and Willis on a plane, where Willis has an episode where he jumps from his seat, loudly declares he’s going upstairs to see John’s mother, grabs a drink from a passenger and causes an enormous ruckus. A flight attendant casually asks if there’s a problem and John says all is under control, and the flight attendant just shrugs, making her the worst flight attendant in recent film history. Once John and Willis land, they head to John’s home in California, which he shares with his husband Eric (Terry Chen), a nurse, and their daughter Monica (Gabby Velis). Willis seems to genuinely love his granddaughter but doesn’t bother to hide his disdain for Eric. A few days later, at a backyard lunch, Willis lashes out at John’s sister Sarah (Laura Linney) and her two teenage children, proving he’s an equal opportunity offender. Writer-director Mortensen periodically dips into the past to show us the brief moments when Willis could be a charmer, but those flashback sequences are mostly about Willis ruining things for the family time and again.

Henriksen turns in fine work as someone who has always taken great pride in being an old-school, traditional “manly man,” the kind of guy who could run a farm and work long days and command respect, when in fact he may have been all those things but he was also selfish, petty, irrational and small. Mortensen strikes subtle and moving notes as John, who is determined not to let his father get under his skin any more, who just wants to provide his father with a measure of comfort and care as he slips from this world. It’s a lovely and selfless sacrifice and one can’t help but admire John — even as we’re repulsed by Willis and his cocoon of hate.