Lance Henriksen gives one of the great “rage, rage against the dying of the light” performances in Viggo Mortensen’s finely-crafted “Falling.” Playing a withered, half-demented old farmer whose cruel lashing-out torches all within reach, he puts an exclamation point on an accomplished character-actor career.
Mortensen, who co-stars as the adult son coping with his Dad’s hair trigger temper and unfiltered willingness to make a scene, also wrote and directed this tale of not-quite-endless patience facing the sad furies of old age, when even growing up with the guy wasn’t exactly a picnic.
“Falling” is a cinematic “memory play,” a movie in which characters in the 2010-or-so “present” are triggered to recall their long, shared pasts.
It can be a pattern on wallpaper, the sound of the sea, ducks calling as they fly past or a meal at a restaurant, but both men — father Willis (Sverrir Gudnason plays him in the 1960s) and son John (Grady McKenzie, Etienne Kellici, William Healy at various ages) — remember and then wrestle with the troubling events of their lives through flashbacks.
John is gay, married to Eric (Terry Chen) in California. And when we meet him he’s just trying to get the old man to his house, flying him from his New York farm to the west. We’re treated to the first of Dad’s “scenes” — disrupting the flight with a belligerent cluelessness that is more infuriating than sad.
Dad’s tendency to lose things and wander off test John at the airport. Dad’s vile homophobia and racism are trotted out for professionally-patient Eric, who is Asian, a nurse and gay — three times the insult opportunities for the cranky old visitor.
Their adoptive daughter (Gabby Velis) is spared, even though she’s Hispanic. She isn’t spared the old man’s vulgar language and crudely cruel stories from father John’s childhood.
Willis remembers his wives — Gwen (Hannah Gross), who gave birth to John and Sarah, and Jill (Bracken Burns) — and constantly mixes them up.
Sarah (Laura Linney) keeps correcting him, as pointless as that is. He labels them both “whores” for fleeing him, can’t remember their deaths, loves his delusions and carries grudges like it was an Olympic sport.
“I don’t need to catch ‘The AIDS’ at my age,” he grouses, when asked about going to the beach, a single sentence with a record number of insults tucked into every word he bites off and spits out.
“Sundowning,” Sarah diagnoses. But his cruelty and ugliness — in front of her, John, Eric and their children — always brings her to tears.
Doctors are a big part of this stage of this life of defiant cursing, smoking, drinking and frying (Mortensen’s sometime collaborator David Cronenberg plays a proctologist), and they too weather his insults and abuse while praising his “fight.”
“I’m a f—–g VIKING!”
Linney’s deft handling of Sarah, a changer-of-the-subject and keeper-of-the-peace, will be recognizably real to most. Every family has one.
Mortensen’s John is a model of forbearance, suffering, “not taking the bait” when the old man spits it out. It’s a performance of delicacy and buried grievances.
But Willis will leave no grievance buried. Henricksen, who first gained notice in “The Right Stuff” and whose long career has been decorated with thugs, tough guys, vampires and the like, is the raging vortex of this cinematic universe. What’s truly startling are the ways he lets us know Willis has and had the tenderness that kept his children, at least, from not fleeing his toxicity the way their mother and step-mother did. In the flashbacks, Gudnason perfectly sets up the Willis that was and the Willis he will age into.
The lovingly-created flashbacks, of hunting and indulgent fathering coupled with callousness, even with the women he “loved,” finish the portrait. Dad could be affectionate and responsible when he wasn’t acting-out, making yet another scene, at home or out in public.
The worst thing you can say about “Falling” is that it isn’t on quite the same level with “The Father,” which covers the same ground in a deeper, Oscar-worthy inside-dementia way.
Mortensen spent the Hollywood capital he earned starring in the Oscar-winning “Green Book” on a film both personal and nuanced, a funereal look at old age, old wounds and the reasons families that experience the good and the bad in a parent persevere. They and we remember both. But when the chips are down, we cling to the good and hope that’s enough.
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout including offensive slurs, crude sexual references, brief sexuality and nudity
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Lance Henricksen, Laura Linney, Hannah Gross, Sverrir Gudnason, Terry Chen, Bracken Burns and David Cronenberg.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Viggo Mortensen. A Quiver release.
Running time: 1:52