Thrice Oscar-nominated actor and Renaissance man Viggo Mortensen makes his writing and directing feature film debut with the poignant family drama Falling, also composing the film’s beautiful piano led score. Currently in the running for Best Canadian Feature Film at TIFF, Falling had its world premiere earlier this year at Sundance. Mortensen plays John Peterson, an ex-Air Force turned commercial pilot (Mortensen wrote the first draft of his screenplay on a flight following his mother’s death); he’s the dutiful gay son of the cantankerous and domineering Willis (Lance Henriksen, who captures the fury, frustration and venom of the man). John lives with his nurse husband Eric (Terry Chen) and their daughter Monica (Gabby Velis) in California, with his sister Sarah (Laura Linney) just a drive away. Suffering from dementia Willis no longer feels able to cope with life on his own on his upstate New York farm and asks for help in relocating to California to be closer to John and Sarah, but by the time he’s arrived at John’s home he’s forgotten that he’s there at his own request. That John is gay and his husband is Asian American encourages Willis’ unfiltered homophobia and racism to spill into their content family home, with derogatory language spewing out whenever he opens his mouth, even when he’s not actively trying to provoke or offend. John and Eric have heard it all before, and we quickly come to anticipate his take on things too; when we see a postcard of the Shepard Fairey designed Obama Hope presidential campaign image we know it’s going to get commented on, and when Willis arrives at the airport we can tell what he’s thinking as he keeps glancing over at the women wearing niqabs at baggage claim.
With Willis increasingly unsure of what’s in the past and what’s in the present, who’s alive and who’s dead, there’s an enriching dual narrative weaved throughout the film, with the present day scenes of the elderly Willis juxtaposed with visceral flashback sequences of John’s childhood and teenage years (played at different ages by Grady McKenzie, Etienne Kellici, William Healy), with the brooding younger Willis compellingly portrayed by Sverrir Gudnason and his wife, John’s loving mother, Gwen played by a warm, soulful Hannah Gross. Although Laura Linney only appears in one present day set scene scene, a volatile family meal in John’s backyard, she brings so much to the film with her masterful, nuanced performance; we see the character’s patience with her father, and her frequent attempts to change the subject when he becomes offensive towards her teenage children. It’s clearly a routine that’s played out many times over the years to the point that her family no longer visits Willis for the Christmas holidays, and Sarah makes excuses for why her husband couldn’t be there to see him. The scene is further informed by us having met the childhood Sarah in the flashbacks. There’s also a small but memorable acting role for David Cronenberg, whom Mortensen worked with on the Oscar-nominated A History of Violence, as a good-humoured doctor who is unfazed by Willis’ comments as he gives the elderly man, a cancer survivor, a rectal examination.
Mortensen’s screenplay is sensitive and intelligent, with details so specific they suggest autobiographical inspiration, like the young John wanting to take the duck he’s shot with his father into the bathtub with him that evening, then later to bed with him. It’s a sequence that provides the early part of the film some humour and light that helps prevent the tone from being overly sombre. Such scenes from the past aren’t simply vignettes, they allow for some beautiful acting from Gudnason and Gross, and add shade to the present day set action. Although there are perhaps more flashbacks that necessary to fill us in on what Willis was like as a younger man, and what John’s life was like living with him, it is nevertheless an effective structure that helps make Falling a layered, emotionally potent and reflective father-son saga.
As we get frustrated with Willis just watching the film, it’s hard to fathom how John is quite so patient with his father, but along with his thoroughly disagreeable nature we do catch at least one glimpse of a gentler side of the man in a flashback scene, and his potential for his own brand of tenderness is also present in the way he treats John’s daughter, who loves her grandfather. Willis might have been far from ideal as a father, but John didn’t turn out as his father would have liked either, a gay West Coast liberal, yet the two continue to remain in one another’s lives for better or worse. As Willis has moments of reckoning with the life he’s led, John reflects on the history of their relationship and one imagines even after death his presence will continue to loom large in his son’s life. Not an easy watch at times, but a film that’s likely to stay with you.
By James Kleinmann
Falling first screened at TIFF on Friday September 11th and screens again this Thursday Sep 17th. Head to the TIFF website to purchase tickets.