'Falling' Review: Viggo Mortensen's Directorial Debut is a Total Disaster [TIFF 2020]

“Sorry to bring you into this world just to die.” So begins Falling, Viggo Mortensen’s frustrating and flawed father/son drama that demands rather than earns empathy from its deeply unlikeable central character and his near saintly son.

Told over two timelines, Mortensen’s script (and directorial debut) shows Willis as a young father (Sverrir Gudnason) and an elderly, sundowning parent (Lance Henriksen). Whether being an obnoxious, abusive prick decades ago or an aggressively homophobic shmuck in the present, the character is deeply unpalatable, almost comedic about his level of boorishness.

Mortensen plays the elder version of the son John, while a trio of child actors portray various ages, blameless for what takes place around them. Along with his husband Eric (Terry Chen) and sister Sarah (Laura Linney) they’re treated to insults and aggressions that are unrelenting. Through it all, we’re somehow meant to find some sort of grace in the near infinite patience of John, as his father’s nature is simply amplified as his faculties diminish with age.

From outbursts on planes or at restaurants, through awkward family meals, we’re constantly seeing the children bestow words of love, kindness, care and above all understanding while Willard goes off on some drama or another. His most charitable, paternal moments occur when handing a loaded gun to his very young son, who manages by fluke to shoot down a duck, providing the most meagre of moments that are looked back on with warmth.

Henriksen’s fine in the role, doing exactly what’s required of him as this loud and obnoxious parent. Mortensen, however, seems as uncertain as his script, as we watch time after time where he takes the pain, only to encounter an inevitable explosion that feels as forced as it is predictable. Even worse, the scene is immediately neutered right after, making the futility of investing in these characters all the more irritating.

When the children yet again acquiesce to the demands of their demented dad, we’re left with an ending meant to somehow be bucolic but instead come across as banal, where even talk of overflowing bathtubs is meant to codify this troubled familial connection. 

Even an appearance by David Cronenberg as a prostate-probing doctor can’t elevate things, and Linney’s role has even less to do other than to look weepy and helpless while sitting tableside. There’s little in the way of either reconciliation or meaningful confrontation, making the entire journey feel haphazard and meandering.

Falling fails hard, unable to generate sympathy for its protagonists and relying entirely on the charms of its writer/director to sustain interest. It’s a shame, as Mortensen’s a fine performer with a strong legacy, but the film feels like the worst kind of passion project, one that forgot to bring the audience in for what amounts to a film more masturbatory than moving. 

/Film Rating: 2 out of 10

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