Viggo Mortensen as John Peterson
William Healy as 15-year-old John Peterson
Etienne Kellici as 10-year-old John Peterson
Grady McKenzie as 5-year-old John Peterson
Lance Henriksen as Willis Peterson
Sverrir Gudnason as Young Willis Peterson
Laura Linney as Sarah Peterson
Ava Kozelj as 10-year-old Sarah Peterson
Carina Battrick as 5-year-old Sarah Peterson
Hannah Gross as Gwen Peterson
Terry Chen as Eric Peterson
Piers Bijvoet as Will
Ella Jonas Farlinger as Paula
Written & Directed by Viggo Mortensen
The subject of dementia is one so fraught with sadness and unknowingness that it’s often tackled on screen in one of two ways: Humor or Tragedy. While the former path is certainly a feasible one, as humor is a coping mechanism for sadness, it often leads to unfair or disingenuous portrayals of the very real mental issue many face as they get older, whereas the latter approach generally bashes a viewer over the head with the message to sympathize with those suffering from it. While Viggo Mortensen’s Falling, might not find the right balance of both worlds, it does offer a far more honest and raw portrayal of the disease that sees its debuting writer/director/star and co-star Lance Henriksen delivering career-best performances.
John (Viggo Mortensen) lives with his partner, Eric (Terry Chen), and their daughter, Mónica (Gabby Velis), in California, far from the traditional rural life he left behind years ago. John’s father, Willis (Lance Henriksen), a headstrong man from a bygone era, lives alone on the isolated farm where John grew up. Willis is in the early stages of dementia, making running the farm on his own increasingly difficult, so John brings him to stay at his California home so that he and his sister Sarah (Laura Linney) might help him find a place near them to relocate to. Unfortunately, their best intentions ultimately run up against Willis’s adamant refusal to change his way of life in the slightest.
Unlike most films centered around characters suffering from dementia, the film takes an interesting narrative path by illustrating how Willis was during John’s childhood and up to the present day, but instead of a kind-hearted father whose struggle against the disease sees him devolve into a despicable character, we’re shown that he’s always been problematic and it presents a more compelling question for the viewer. How far does unconditional love for a parent go when they give you no avenue to connect with?
Drawing from his own experiences, Mortensen certainly doesn’t hold back in crafting the character of Willis, delivering a thoroughly conservative, wildly racist and homophobic misogynist whose time has long past. At times, it greatly works to create some gripping and emotionally heated moments between John and his father, as well as Eric, Sarah and the rest of the extended family, but admittedly there are times it becomes hard to watch. It’s undeniably an honest portrayal of those who exhibited these behaviors prior to succumbing to dementia, which only exacerbates and brings forth these negative traits more frequently and without filter, but at times the writing does draw dangerously near depicting Willis as a caricature more so than a genuinely complex or flawed person.
This is frequently saved, however, by Mortensen’s direction and the incredible performance from Henriksen in the role. The 80-year-old actor holds nothing back bringing Willis to life, delivering every harsh criticism, horrible slur and occasional expression of love and heartbreak with such a truthful abandon it’s hard to completely hate or feel unsympathetic in watching his spiral. Be it John’s endless attempts to help his ailing father or the rare moments indicating he’s really hurting deep down from a life of abandonment, the way the story keeps characters from endlessly turning their backs on him helps create a similar connection in audiences to Willis and keeping a sliver of hope alive that maybe he will come around.
While it might feel a little familiar or predictable in moments and Willis occasionally strays into caricature territory, Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut nonetheless proves to be a powerful, beautifully shot and incredibly performed honest portrayal of dementia that establishes the three-time Oscar nominee as a directorial talent certainly worth waiting for.