I’ve seen a lot of films about jerks - we all have. They're popular! Usually these cinematic bastards have some tragic core, a stream of humanity, maybe even just ugly magnetism - something to hang on to while spending two hours with them. Willis, the main character of Viggo Mortensen’s Falling, offers none of these things. As a result, the film surrounding him acts as an endurance test with nothing to offer for your effort.
Mortensen - who wrote, directed, did the music and stars as Willis’ beleaguered son John - structures his film around a somewhat rapid back and forth between childhood flashbacks and his present situation dealing with his ailing father for a plot reason that never pays off. When he’s a kid his dad is just an angry asshole, but the grown up Viggo version of John has to deal with an angry asshole who also has dementia. The film opens with Willis waking up on a plane, not knowing where he is. He yells, he curses, he tries to smoke in the bathroom - all while a patient and polite John attempts to calm and correct his confused father. It takes a while to realize this will be the entire film.
Willis is just angry. He hates everyone. His racist, misogynist, homophobic remarks are awful but also less about actual hatred toward those groups than a pointed effort to strategically wound whoever is currently in his line of sight. Add in his dementia, and this anger loses all focus. Henriksen’s Willis just plows through the film spitting hate like a lawn sprinkler in all directions. Through all this, John remains totally patient and calm. He (and later his sister played by Laura Linney) take the toxins in stride, ignoring it or changing the subject. Never really confronting it, which would at least be interesting. But they are better than that, with a sainthood that quickly becomes frustrating and obnoxious in its own way. The film doesn't really try to examine them.
Why do they put up with it? Well, no one in the film feels relatable or realistically human, so that helps. You can’t quite imagine any of these characters existing outside of their scenes. John has a husband and daughter, but they all feel like strangers living in a house put together by a bland set director. In one scene, they take Willis to an art museum. A guy no noxious he can’t even fly in a plane without nearly getting arrested gets to opine Picasso.
Supposedly, they love their father and want what’s best for him even though flashbacks reveal he was rotten long before dementia set in. That’s admirable and I wish them luck. I was dying to abandon this guy within thirty minutes. There’s no emotional center to all this ugly noise, no poignant moments or lessons learned. I don’t think the film knows this. But the more these folks just put up with Willis, the less relatable they seem, and by the end you’re just watching people get abused over and over again, and the abuse itself becomes more tedious than sad. The guy isn't even funny.
Lance Henriksen deserves a big show-stopping role like this to reveal how much folks have taken him for granted all these years. This should be that kind of role. Instead it’s a misstep that wastes the actor. There are moments here and there where you can see the man underneath all the hate - and also a nice scene where David Cronenberg sticks a finger up his ass - but they are barely perceptible to the point where they almost seem accidental.
Obviously Falling is a labor of love from Mortensen, telling what I have to assume is a very personal story. But that’s not worth much if no one else can relate to it. This is simply a difficult film to watch, much less recommend.