Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut, Falling, is a story of an unrepentant prodigal father and the son who strives to be forgiving and loving. It is the story of the dynamics of a lifelong struggle to maintain a relationship that includes a very fragile loving bond.
John Peterson (Mortensen) lives in California with his husband Eric (Terry Chen) and their daughter Monica (Gabby Velis). When he brings his aging father Willis (Lance Henriksen) who is suffering from dementia out to find a place for him to live closer to his family, Willis is not at all cooperative. He does not want to change anything in his life. In the process old memories are roused that show us the pain, suffering, and struggle of a lifetime of this father-son relationship.
The first thing we note is that Willis is constantly rude, crass, homophobic, demanding, and totally self-centered. While we may think his lack of filters is the result of aging and dementia, we quickly discover that he was like this as a young man (played by Sverrir Gudnason). We watch as Willis (both young and old) abuses nearly everyone close to him—including his children and two wives. We may well wonder why John is so intent on trying to help this reprobate who spews anger and odium constantly. But of course, Willis is, despite everything, his father.
While so much of the film shows Willis to be thoroughly reprehensible, there are memories that show some of the ways John has connected to him. The most powerful is when Willis took Jack duck hunting when he was about four. In a bit of astounding luck, Jack shoots a duck. That duck becomes a great trophy for Jack. Both Jack and his father have pride in what happened and they share this memory for a lifetime.
The struggle that John faces is how to fulfill his understanding of filial love when Willis seems so intent on being unlovable. Yet we see that there were times in Willis’s past where people did love him—and he seemed to love them. The problem boils down to how do we judge a life? Is it be the worst people have done or the best they have accomplished? Willis is certainly an extreme case of a flawed person. The flaws seem to far outweigh any virtue he may harbor deep within.
This is a story of the challenge of living with grace. For John the challenge is to bring grace into this relationship he wishes was more loving, more accepting, more fulfilling. But Willis has a challenge as well—perhaps even harder. He must live as the recipient of grace—of one being loved without having really earned that love.
Falling is available in select theaters and on VOD.