Viggo Mortensen can't save the punishing dementia drama Falling: Review
This month, improbably, will see the release of two dramas about the devastating effects of caring for a parent with dementia: The Father, starring Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman, and Falling, Viggo Mortensen's directorial debut. It may be a favor to Falling that it arrives first, because the film suffers in almost every other way by comparison.
Mortensen — who also produced and penned the script — plays John, a Los Angeles airline pilot with a lovely-looking life that includes a supportive husband (Jessica Jones' Terry Chen) and young daughter (Gabby Velis). John is committed to the task of moving his widowed dad, Willis (Lance Henriksen) from his remote New York farm into warmer retirement in California, though Willis tends to forget from moment to moment that that plan exists.
What he knows ebbs and flows, but one thing is consistent: Willis is a mean son of a bitch. He has many other words for that; in fact, he has words for everything, nearly all of them lewd, profane, or spectacularly cruel. Not that things were ever so different, we learn in a cascading series of flashbacks. Even before illness took any filter away, Willis (portrayed as a younger man by Swedish actor Sverrir Gudnason) was always stormy, an emotional weather system whose mercurial moods held constant sway over his long-suffering wife (Mindhunter's Hannah Gross) and their two small children.
Henriksen, with his granite cheekbones and hard gaze, often plays characters carved from extremes. But his endless spittle-flecked rants here — he dismisses Barack Obama as "that negro you voted for," regales his grandchildren with explicit tales of "whores" and "fairies," and showers his son in gay epithets so outmoded they might actually be mothballed — aren't illuminating, just vicious.
Faced with a protagonist who is less a person than a walking Archie Bunker insult generator, gifted actors like Gross and Laura Linney (as John's grown sister) are mostly left to languish in the blast radius, their default mode a pained rictus of shock and dismay. Even Mortensen, whose quiet magnetism usually fills the screen, recedes into a sort of polite paralysis whenever Henriksen's raging patriarch is near — so absent from himself that a single bloodletting scene near the end doesn't bring anywhere near the catharsis it should.
The film (out Friday) is otherwise well acted and nicely shot, but Falling's bigger problem, aside from a sluggish narrative and the constant general unpleasantness of being in Willis' presence, is that we've seen so many bad dads like this in cinema before: Bullies, narcissists, monstrous abusers. Barring any greater lessons on motivation or forgiveness, the movie becomes little more than an endurance test; one far easier — at least for the viewer — to fall away from than to stay. Grade: C