This awards season, here come the battle of the movies about dementia. First there was Anthony Hopkins battling dementia in the four time Golden Globe nominee “The Father”. Now we have Lance Henriksen also battling dementia in “Falling”, out now on VOD (video on demand) and all premium streaming platforms. When I wrote my review for Anthony Hopkins film “The Father” two months ago. I awarded it four and a half stars, because I was quite struck by what a great film it was, how powerful it was and of it’s unique approach to depicting the brain disease in a psychological way.
Then here comes “Falling”, another look at dementia with a more provocative approach to the material. It features a stunning directorial debut from actor Viggo Mortensen (“A History Of Violence”). The three time best actor Oscar nominee also writes, produces, stars and even composes the musical score. When an actor turns to filmmaking, it’s always fascinating to see what they opt to tackle. Mortensen’s debut is about as challenging as it gets as the content he’s chosen is dark, un-commercial and handled with a deep sense of realism. While the Academy may recognize the film for it’s performances and depending on the critic will think highly of it. But I don’t see it making for a likely hit for the general audience, which is unfortunate. I hope audiences seek this one out.
For some, it may go too far in the darkness that comes with the territory, but it feels real and it should since Viggo Mortensen knows the disease all too well, having to see both his parents suffer from dementia. Watching Mortensen’s depiction of a parent spiraling downward brings out some terrifically vibrant emotions and a killer performance from acting veteran Lance Henriksen.
Viggo Mortensen is John, a middle-aged corporate jet pilot who lives in California with a loving husband Eric (Terry Chen) and an adopted daughter, Mónica (Gabby Velis). Lance Henriksen is Willis, John’s father, who still lives on a farm in upstate New York where John and his sister grew up. John knows his father’s dementia is only getting worse and he can no longer attend to his horses or withhold his rage and boy does he have a lot of rage. John decides to take him to California to buy him a house there and to where he can look after his father.
What follows is a rough domestic drama focused on the never-healthy relationship between a father, a son and a volcano waiting to erupt of dark emotions. John responds to the old man’s attacks with patience, kindness and a soft calming voice. John feels an innate familial loyalty, and we see right away that John is a good man and a good son. He’s not going to abandon his father, but with a father like Willis, there’s only so much a person can take.
Lance Henriksen delivers the best work of his distinguished career here. He makes Willis both horrific and utterly recognizable and I can only believe this is likely how it goes for many families. Harsh words are spoken, bile is spilled and it’s all a messy situation. Henriksen delivers this all with an impeccably dark turn. From the moment Willis is seen on screen, there is an unsettling nature about his persona. He’s fully inhabiting a desperate alienating character. He is bitter, lacerating, a poison to those around him who love him.
As vile a man as he is spewing words of hate, rage, homophobia and racial slurs he is secretly a sentimentalist who gets lost in his own thoughts. The movie often intercuts his thoughts and memories of his wife and kids at a time before he snapped his bond with them. Willis’s mind recedes into the past, his scowl softens and his eyes grow with tears but he doesn’t let himself cry or open up to his family because he is too macho for that. Mortensen’s screenplay goes a little overboard in terms of giving Willis homophobia remarks which is only a hint of how Mortensen doesn’t shy away from making Willis unlikable.
Many audience members will come away with a lot of thoughts and feelings toward Willis. They will go as far as thinking, “What a horrible man. I’m glad I don’t have to spend another second with him”. But in fairness, Mortensen never quite asks you to feel sympathy for Willis. It’s impossible to overstate how great Henriksen is here. This is Oscar nomination work.
Mortensen, has never given such a restrained performance. We watch his character’s patience expand throughout the film until a most welcome emotional explosion. In one of the film’s best scenes, Mortensen unloads all the things we as the audience have been thinking and been wanting to say to Willis. Mortensen’s scene brings out the Viggo we all expect to win an Oscar one day and should have won by now. Mortensen’s directing and writing debut is a stunner and I’m ready for his next effort both behind the camera and in front of it.
“Falling” has a cinematic presence and it delivers characterization and motivation like a novel, getting into the characters personalities without losing any momentum. Miraculously Mortensen doesn’t make a depressing picture, dealing with frustration in a meaningful way, working through confrontations elegantly, keeping his feature modest to best communicate the power of one’s memory and the challenge of keeping a family together even when one of them is slowly losing their mind.
*Keep an eye out for a cameo from filmmaker David Cronenberg as a proctologist*
GRADE: ★★★★☆ (4 out of 5)