Falling, a serious, often disturbing film about a father/son relationship, marks the directorial debut of actor Viggo Mortensen.
Familiar to audiences for playing Aragorn in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy and for portraying a chauffeur who overcomes his racism in The Green Book, Mortensen drops us into rough terrain, showing what happens when an already difficult problem is made insoluble by dementia.
The movie's son, played by Mortensen, is gay; the father, rendered in abrupt vitriolic strokes by Lance Henriksen, could serve as a poster boy for insensitivity.
Mortensen, who also wrote the screenplay, shifts between present and past to create a fuller picture of Willis's rueful life and its impact on his family.
From the start, we know that Willis qualifies as a hard case: As a young father (played by Sverrir Gudnason), Willis looks at his infant son John and tells him that he's sorry he brought him into the world to die, hardly a feel-good welcome.
The present-tense elements take place when the New York-based Willis visits California to be closer to his John and his sister, a late-appearing Laura Linney.
By this time, Henriksen's Willis, a man in his 80s, has slipped into a demented fog. If Willis ever had any ability to censor his worsts impulses, they're long gone.
John does his best to practice forbearance even as the visiting Willis crudely insults him and his husband Eric (Terry Chen). It doesn't take long to figure out why John and his sister wanted to put 2,400 miles between themselves and their father.
Flashbacks flesh out the story of Willis's earlier days with Hannah Gross appearing as Willis's wife. Fidelity isn't Willis's strong suit. Eventually, he leaves Gross's character for Jill (Bracken Burns), a woman he also abuses.
To add shading, Mortensen includes scenes-- moments, really -- in which Willis shows genuine affection for his son. Both of these scenes involve hunting and provide much-needed nuance about the complexity of a bullying relationship.
When a movie revolves around a character as caustic as Willis, the other characters tend to be forced to the periphery. Mortensen's John, an Air Force veteran and late-blooming gay man, is raising a daughter (Gabby Velis) with his husband, but we don't learn a lot about that relationship.
Perhaps in a bow to his work in David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, Eastern Promises and A History of Violence, Mortensen casts Cronenberg as a proctologist in one of Falling's lighter moments. Take it as a comment about the movie's tone that the comic relief takes place in a proctologist's office.
Although I appreciated much about Falling, I can't say that I totally believed in Mortensen's highly concentrated approach, mostly because Willis is so out-sized in his repugnance that it's impossible to feel anything for him. Henriksen dominates the other performances, including Mortensen's fine portrayal of a man struggling not to engage in combat with a bullying father.
I guess, then, it's possible to look at Falling as a kind of domestic war movie in which one side only can save itself by refusing to fight.