Saturday 5 December 2020

Into the sunset: "Falling"

Viggo Mortensen has presented to us as such a renaissance man - actor, writer, artist, musician - you could be forgiven for thinking he must have turned his hand to directing some while back. But no: this week's Falling marks his debut, and it's a pretty accomplished one, too. Mortensen has set himself something of a challenge, in that he's attempting to bring a fresh eye to a disease-of-the-week-movie template: the story of a middle-aged gay man, John (Mortensen), coming to terms with the slide of his cantankerous dad Willis (Lance Henriksen) into dementia, and the extra insensitivity that follows from that. Once again, we find ourselves sat before a film that rotates around the father-son axis, the most overstudied and consequently careworn in all American cinema. The trick Mortensen pulls off is to get properly inside that bond (it doubtless helps that he's playing one of these roles) and thereby expand our understanding of it a little; in expending huge amounts of care on the specifics, he sets the viewer to relitigating their relationship with their own father. Mortensen understands that, for some boys, this will be the most important relationship they'll ever have, because fathers serve as figureheads, some marker of how a man should act in any given situation. That makes life all the more fraught when dementia intervenes, wiping out shared histories and leaving its victim behaving entirely inappropriately. What to do or say when your role model is being driven off the rails from within?

After introducing John and Willis on a night flight, the hushed setting amplifying the latter's growing inability to comport himself by social norms, Falling opens up via a series of flashbacks to John's childhood, when he first became aware of his mother Gwen (Hannah Gross)'s unhappiness at being tethered to such a conservative, volatile man. As the younger Willis, the Swedish actor Sverrir Gudnason is something like a steelier, less genial Sam Rockwell - though we also spy traces of Mortensen himself in him, which complicates everything. (In at least one way, John is very much his father's son.) Still, only a brute would want to leave Gwen unhappy, or wanting for much. Glimpsed in passing amid the generally boysy procedural of Netflix's Mindhunter, Gross is here revealed as a lovely, Diane Lane-like presence. We miss her when she's gone; her boys do, too, though only one of them seems capable of admitting to it. These flashbacks, which make up at least half of Falling's running time, reminded me of Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan's excellent work on 2018's Wildlife. They're not just exposition, slotted neatly in place to explain the present-day action, but an attempt to intuit and inhabit the sadness of a household collapsing in on itself. They're structurally interesting, too, cued as much by old man Willis's addled reveries as by his son's efforts to find common ground with the stranger grouching at his breakfast bar. One of these men is clinging rigidly to the past, even as he loses his mental grip; the other is poking his head in to see if there's anything worth salvaging there.

At any rate, it's scant surprise that this household is seen to buckle under the weight of such an overbearing personality. It was an inspired idea to cast Henriksen, with his history of irredeemable screen villains, as an everyday tyrant; he brings to the task what we might call transferable snarls. Plenty of actors have played right-leaning characters, but Henriksen is the first I've seen capture a baiting tone particular to some libertarians: a way of saying the most outrageous things - or merely regurgitating tabloid talking points - not because the speaker necessarily believes in them, but to test whether the libtard snowflakes around them are as keen on free speech as they like to profess. The first half is almost all flinty conversation, dominated by this Really Bad Grandpa; even ordering in a Chinese restaurant is a minefield. And yet he's never just a monster - or he's a more complicated monster than American movies have traditionally given us, gruffly accepting of his son's sexuality, and displaying an obvious affection for his granddaughter, even if his endgame there is to instil the backbone he can't imagine his son passing on. In a sequence that makes a strong case for this newbie director's visual sense, we see Willis mulling over a fistful of happy memories on a beach, watching the sun set over the ocean - until, with a jolting smash cut, the tide creeps up on this crusty Canute, knocking him down and almost dragging him out to a watery grave. He's an asshole - and Henriksen never lets us forget as much, coming up with a constant stream of crap - but he's a wounded, increasingly damaged asshole, the kind of asshole history often made of our forefathers.

If Falling has a weakness, it lies in its dramatic shape, and the mortifying effect this character has on his loved ones. Mortensen offers so complete an examination of this tragically entrenched figure - even sending on David Cronenberg to glove up as a proctologist at one point - that there's barely room for anybody else to make much of an impression. Both the director himself, and Laura Linney, drafted in for one scene as John's sister Sarah, are left in the same position as their characters: they have to sit on their hands, and either wait patiently for Storm Willis to pass or hope the opportunity presents to slip a word in edgeways. It's telling that John and Willis are observed eating a typically terse dinner in front of a TV showing Red River: Mortensen, too, is surely delineating a pronounced generational clash. The trouble is that Willis is both John Wayne and the cattle: a stubborn ox who needs steering, revealed by his actions in the flashbacks (riding, hunting, womanising, lashing out at a son he deems incorrigibly weak) as representative of a form of masculinity that is at once self-sufficient, horribly self-serving, and quite possibly dying out. Little resistance and no fight is offered until John feels compelled to raise a fist of his own with twenty minutes to go; Willis is so determined to have the final word in any given situation that he barely permits any dialogue. I wonder whether a female director tackling the same material would be quite so lenient or forgiving; I'm intrigued to see whether my female colleagues detect just a whiff of macho BS in the way Willis is finally romanticised, just a little. We boys are prone to romanticising our fathers, even as their words hurt loved ones and send everybody else running for the hills. No denying that Henriksen achieves something mighty with those words, however; and if he finds his way up to a podium in the months ahead, the achievement will be partly Mortensen's.

Falling is now playing in selected cinemas, and available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema, the BFI Player, and the Modern Films website.

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