There are a lot of prominent actors screening their feature directorial debuts at TIFF this year. Halle Berry is making her mark with the MMA drama Bruised end Regina King is racking up rapturous praise for the stellar One Night in Miami. For Viggo Mortensen, however, the journey has been a little quieter. Falling arrives in Toronto (and online) after a muted reception at Sundance, one of the few film festivals of 2020 to take place in-person before the pandemic became a worldwide concern. Mortensen’s film seems tailor-made for the festival circuit: A noble family drama full of pain and emotional peaks that seems as though it was written by following a highly strict rulebook.
Mortensen, forever a polymath in Hollywood (he acts, does photography, paints, writes poetry, and runs a publishing press), stars, produces, directs, and scores Falling. He plays the John Peterson, a sensitive and proud former Air Force vet who lives a seemingly idyllic life in California with his husband and daughter. Said bliss is disrupted when he is forced to look after his father Willis (Lance Henricksen), a bullying bigot of a man who is slowly succumbing to dementia.
When the synopsis for Falling was revealed, a hell of a lot of us got the fear that the movie could end up being the next Green Book, a condescending co-opting of the lives and struggles of the marginalized, mostly to use as a series of cheap punchlines for the token bigot character. We’ve seen far too many movies where the ‘common ground’ between the bullies and the bullied is fetishized as some sort of moral and ethical ideal for humanity, and all it does is further dehumanize those whose stories are seldom told with truth or integrity. Mercifully, Falling is not Green Book. Its intentions are far nobler than that. It is, however, a movie told on rails that hits nearly every beat you expect it to.
Telling a story about dementia is a near-impossible task. Very few films have captured the vicious cycle of the illness effectively without romanticizing its impact or leering over the indignities it creates. Dementia robs you of so much and watching a loved one’s deterioration is a cruelly unpredictable descent. This is clearly a subject close to Mortensen’s heart and you cannot say the movie is not wholeheartedly earnest in its endeavors, but it falls into so many lazy storytelling traps and offers little in the way of insight or depth. Willis is a horrible human being, a man who chastises his son for ‘sucking d**k’ while referring endlessly to his ex-wives as ‘whores.’ He can’t help but call Barack Obama ‘that negro,’ and describes California as a state ‘for c**ksuckers and flag burners.’ Ninety percent of the words that come from Henricksen’s mouth could have been pulled from a 4chan thread, or, to be blunt, almost any other Hollywood dementia drama that relies on that instinctive flinching from bigoted rhetoric to go its heavy emotional lifting.
It’s evident that Willis’s suffering mental health has left him unable to control himself or tell where he is most of the time, but he was also a sexist, homophobic, racist asshole before all that. So, we’re left for close to two hours listening to these screeds and being exhausted with little to show for it. That may very well be the point — there are no rewards with an illness like this — but it still leaves the audience in an unenviable position. That matter isn’t at all helped by the fact that some of these insults are clearly meant to be punchlines. Glimpses into John and Willis’s pasts, which include John being physically and verbally abused by his father, don’t add any extra dimensions to their problems either. Once again, Willis is just a dick. Why is this our creative default mode for portraying sufferers of dementia?
Early in the film, while Willis is once again spewing homophobia at his son, John calmly says that he promised himself he wouldn’t rise to his father’s bait. He’s too noble for that, and the film imbues this decision with so much weight of sincerity and honor that it doesn’t earn. For too long, John sits there and takes it, as does his sister (played by Laura Linney, the perfect actress for a film in need of a one-scene moment of emotional heft such as this.) Falling seems to believe that ceaseless suffering is worthy in and of itself, especially if you take it without so much as a grimace. I don’t think that’s true. There may be some level of honesty behind it with regards to dealing with a sick parent with whom your relationship is strained, but with these portrayals, you have to offer more than the pain. You need more than the familiar beats of the genre told with a prestigious cinematographic sheen. Otherwise, all you have is yet another movie about an awful old white dude who we’re supposed to feel bad for because his own behavior has alienated him from his family and the world at large.
Lance Henricksen is on fine form in this thankless yet baity role, but the movie serves his performance best when it shuts him up for a few minutes. In one scene, he stumbles lost onto a beach and finds a moment of peace before his confusion and anger return. It’s one shining moment in 110 minutes where something works about this misguided narrative, but it’s not long before he’s back to calling his grandkids ‘fairies’ and complaining that his horse is too fat (yes, even the horse isn’t safe from his crap.) Falling is at its best when it says nothing at all because when it does talk, the words are empty.
I empathize with Mortensen’s intentions here. This is clearly a deeply personal film for him and close to four decades in front of the camera has given him a solid eye for constructing a story like this. He offers interesting flourishes here and there, especially with a smartly non-linear narrative that matches the story’s scant themes. Yet Falling’s viewpoint is stiflingly narrow and it’s to the detriment of its ambitions. This is self-flagellation for the sake of it, a passion project that can’t see the pleasures for all the pain.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 10-19. For more on how you can participate, visit the TIFF website.
Epidemiologists do not think it’s safe yet to go to theaters even with social distancing and safety measures in place. This review is not an endorsement or suggestion otherwise. Our reviewers are covering the films remotely with the use of screening links.
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