When the pain of a relationship overrides the positives, can love still exist?
In Falling, John (Viggo Mortensen) is a husband and father whose life is thrown asunder when his father, Willis (Lance Henrikson) requires his care. With his mind beginning to decline, the time has come for to Willis to explore other options in his living arrangements. Hoping that moving closer to his family in California will help his father, John and his sister Sarah (Laura Linney) bring Willis for a visit to look at homes in their area. However, their best intentions ultimately run counter to Willis’ plan, unleashing his stubbornness and inner rage upon the family.
Quite simply, Falling is a very difficult film to watch. Written and directed with ferocity by Viggo Mortensen, the film (intentionally) has very little levity or charm. That is not to say it’s not very well done. As a first-time filmmaker, Mortensen also shows some skill. Having learned from some of the best over the years, Mortensen has always chosen intriguing stories to tell and Falling is no different. His frequent (but brief) use of flashbacks point to a childhood that remains in view yet also feels strained to find positive moments. In this way, he shows a great deal of promise as a director. What’s more, Falling features some excellent performances, especially from Henrikson and Linney.
However, the difficulty of Falling lies not in its filmmaking or cast. The truth is that this story is difficult to watch simply because it’s thoroughly uncomfortable. In virtually every scene, Henrikson’s Willis shows himself to be one of the most abusive and reviling characters in recent memory. Despite the best efforts of those around him to make him comfortable, Willis spews such venom that the viewer is never allowed to feel safe with him onscreen. An excellent example of this comes from the dinner scene where Linney’s Sarah comes to visit with her family. Although Sarah attempts to bring some joy to their family gathering, Willis is relentless in his cruelty, eventually driving almost all from the table. As such, like Willis’ failing mental health, Falling feels like an endless freefall into darkness.
The most difficult aspect of Falling is the fact that Willis refuses all opportunities for any form of redemption. As he increasingly loses his mind, one would expect the film to offer some sympathy for the devil yet none comes. Instead, with his mental faculties failing, Willis has become an angry beast, spewing racist and hateful verbal daggers at whomever lies in his path. While some films grapple with this topic by attempting to hold up ‘the man he was’ against ‘the man he has become’, even John’s flashbacks depict Willis as a hard man who gives his son few positive memories.
Which begs the question: What does it mean to love someone who is unlovable?
Clearly, John struggles to maintain civility with his father’s toxicity out of respect for him. At the same time, John is only human and time with his father continues to weigh on his soul. With each racist remark that comes from Willis’ mouth, the viewer can see John be pushed slightly further to the edge, even if he is doing everything in his power to contain himself. Even so, despite the complicated nature of their relationship, John clings by his fingernails to his love for his father. Although his childhood was a struggle at times, John attempts to show grace to the man who raised him, especially since he has clearly lost control of his faculties.
To John, Willis’ lack of repentance does not diminish his value.
That question of value quietly becomes the key to unlocking a film like this. Despite the overwhelming reasons for John and his family to simply walk away from Willis, they recognize that he still matters. Despite his own lack of repentance, Willis is shown to have value simply for who he is. John fights tirelessly for his father, not because Willis ‘deserves’ it but because he is in need. Even with his flaws, John refuses to treat his father as ‘less’ than others. For John, Willis’ need for help supersedes his own hurt and frustrations over his behaviour. That’s a powerful depiction of love and grace onscreen.
While it is a painful watch, Falling certainly has a great deal of merit. Featuring quality performances and solid filmmaking, the film’s uncomfortable atmosphere is intentional. (In fact, it’s entirely the point of the film.) For his first venture behind the camera, Mortensen delivers an aptly named slide into darkness that is well-told, even if it is a difficult viewing.
Though, admittedly, it may not be one that you want to revisit after the credits roll.
Falling is available on VOD, DVD and Blu-Ray on February 5th, 2021.