April 7, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Viggo Mortensen
Culture Representation: Taking place in Southern California and an unnamed state on the East Coast of the U.S., the dramatic film “Falling” features a predominantly white cast (with a few Asians, Latinos and African Americans) representing the middle-class.
Culture Clash: An openly gay, middle-aged man has conflicts with his bigoted father, who has early signs of dementia.
Culture Audience: “Falling” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching movies about dysfunctional families and dealing with dementia, but the movie’s constant vitriol from one of the characters might be a turnoff to some viewers.
If not for the commendable acting from the stars of the movie, “Falling” would be a very unpleasant chore to watch. This dramatic movie is the feature-film directorial debut of Viggo Mortensen, who also wrote the film’s screenplay and musical score. Mortensen is also one of the stars and producers of the “Falling,” which tells the story of how a hate-filled old man and his middle-aged children (especially his son) deal with the old man’s dementia and his search for a place to retire.
The direction of the movie veers between fluid and uneven. There are parts of the story that become too repetitive with bigotry and other bad behavior. However, there’s enough authenticity in the cast members’ performances in “Falling” that makes the movie worth watching to see how this emotionally damaged family is going to cope with family problems. In interviews, Mortensen has said that “Falling” is not biographical, but some parts of the film were inspired by what he’s experienced in real life.
There’s no other way to describe Willis Peterson (played by Lance Henriksen), the family’s patriarch: He’s a racist, homophobic, sexist, self-centered, foul-mouthed bully. Willis tests the patience of his family members (and people watching this movie) with his increasingly erratic and unhinged actions. Willis, who is in his 70s, is looking for a place to retire, possibly in California, and he’s being helped by his openly gay son John (played by Mortensen), who lives in Southern California.
Willis has another child named Sarah (played by Laura Linney), John’s younger sister, who isn’t in the movie for very long. But her presence in “Falling” brings a valuable perspective on how this family became such a mess of emotional terrorism by Willis. There’s a lot of unspoken resentment from the family members who put up with his disgusting nonsense. Sarah’s involvement is brief but impactful. “Falling” is really a father/son story, told from the perspective of Willis and John and their memories.
There are several non-chronological flashbacks in the movie that viewers have to put together like pieces in a puzzle to explain how and why this family ended up this way. The flashbacks go as far back as the early 1960s, when a young Willis (played by Sverrir Gudnason) and his wife Gwen (played by Hannah Gross) are parents to John when he was a baby. Willis says half-jokingly to baby John (played by twins Liam and Luca Cresctielli): “I’m sorry I brought you into this world so that you can die.” The family lives on an isolated farm in an unnamed state on the East Coast.
The movie’s flashbacks never show Sarah as a baby, but she’s about five years younger than John. The movie’s flashbacks show Sarah at approximately 4 to 6 years old (played by Carina Battrick) and at 11 years old (played by Ava Kozelj), while John is shown at 4 years old (played by Grady McKenzie), approximately 9 to 11 years old (played by (Etienne Kelliciand), and at age 16 (played by William Healy). It becomes apparent that Willis was a selfish person as a husband and a father. He’s the main cause for the family’s unhappiness.
Narcissistic people who become parents often have resentment when their children don’t pay as much attention to the narcissist as the kids did when they were younger. Based on what’s shown in the flashbacks, that’s exactly what happened with Willis. Gwen and Willis’ marriage began to crumble as their kids grew up and started to develop their own personalities and opinions. It’s a lot easier to boss around a 4-year-old than it is to boss around a 16-year-old.
There’s a flashback scene in the movie of Willis teaching 4-year-old John how to duck hunt. It’s one of the few scenes in the movie that show Willis and John seeming to be happy spending time together. After shooting a duck, John takes the dead duck home with him and refuses to give it to his mother to cook. Instead, John insists on treating the duck like a toy, even to the point of bringing the duck with him to bed. (Mortensen says that this happened to him in real life when he was a child.) Gwen eventually convinces John to give her the duck so that she can cook it.
But as John and Sarah got older, Willis’ nasty side came out even more. There’s a scene of John, at approximately 9 to 11 years old, having a birthday party in the family home. Gwen, Sarah, several children and their mothers are also at the party, which is a happy celebration until Willis tries to ruin it. Willis lurks nearby with a jealous look on his face, as if he can’t stand that he’s not the center of attention in his home. And sure enough, Willis blurts out something demeaning to humiliate John, while an embarrassed Gwen tries to ignore what happened and pretend that everything is okay.
But everything is not okay. In flashbacks, it’s shown that Willis cheated on Gwen with a younger woman named Jill (played by Bracken Burns), who was either a friend of Gwen’s or someone whom Gwen trusted enough to let Jill be a babysitter before the adultery betrayal. Willis and Jill moved in together around the time that John was 9 to 11 years old. Gwen and Willis got divorced. Gwen got full custody of the kids, with Willis getting visitation rights.
But when Gwen started dating another man, jealous Willis decided to not return John and Sarah from one of his visitations. The details are sketchy in the flashbacks, but it seems as if Willis and Jill took John and Sarah on an extended road trip without permission, which was a violation of the custody agreement. Willis freely admits to Jill that he didn’t want to return the kids to their mother, just to spite Gwen. It’s unclear if Willis went to jail over it, but he and Jill had the kids long enough where there’s a scene of Willis and Jill with the kids in a diner, the children look miserable, and the kids ask when they can go home.
By the time John became a teenager, John and Willis’ relationship had deteriorated to the point of them getting into physical fights. There’s a scene of Willis and a 16-year-old John getting into an argument and brawling while they were horseback riding together. Willis is the aggressor, and viewers can easily speculate that it’s not the first time that Willis has been physically abusive to John. It’s shown throughout the story that horses are a big deal to Willis, who seems to like horses more than he likes people.
Gwen eventually got remarried to someone named Danny, an artist whom Willis despised. Jill never married Willis but lived with him for a few years, and she eventually left Willis for a man she married named Michael White. Willis hated Michael too. Jill and Gwen are now both deceased. Willis never got remarried, which is no surprise because no one in their right mind would think that Willis would be a good husband.
Willis’ dementia causes him to sometimes confuse Gwen and Jill when he’s talking about them. And sometimes, he thinks Gwen and Jill are still alive. At one point, he calls Gwen a “whore” in one of his rants. In another scene, he calls Jill a “fucking saint.”
All of these details are not revealed in a smooth and straightforward manner in the movie. There’s a lot of timeline jumps that don’t always flow well with the story. People watching this movie also have to pay attention to conversations to pick up details about the Peterson family.
The main actors in “Falling” also communicate non-verbally (with facial expressions and body language) to express how their characters are feeling inside. Linney, who is always terrific in her performances, excels in this actor technique. In other words, “Falling” is a movie that is best appreciated if viewers are not distracted by anything else while watching it.
In a present-day scene, John (who used to be in the U.S. Air Force) mentions during one point in the movie that he didn’t accept that he was gay until he was in the military and he came out as gay around the same time. It’s unclear how long John was in the military, but there’s mention of him working as a pilot after he got out of the Air Force. John and Sarah, who live in Southern California, are now both happily married with children.
John’s husband Eric (played by Terry Chen) is a nurse who works the night shift at a local hospital. John and Eric have an adorable adopted daughter named Mónica (played by Gabby Velis), who’s about 9 or 10 years old. Sarah and her husband (who is never seen in the movie) live in Ventura and have two teenagers: Paula (played by Ella Jonas Farlinger), who’s about 18 years old, and Will (played by Piers Bijvoet), who’s about 15 or 16. Willis shows some grandfatherly affection for Mónica, probably because she’s at an age where she’s easier to control than a teenager, and she might be too naïve to see what an awful person Willis is.
In one of the early scenes of “Falling,” John and Willis are on a plane because Willis is traveling from wherever he lives to visit John and Sarah in California. The other purpose of the trip is so that Willis can look for a possible retirement place in California, but it soon becomes clear that California is not exactly his first choice. Willis’ dementia has reached a point where it’s not safe for him to travel alone. He often gets confused about where he is and what year it is.
This confusion becomes immediately apparent, when Willis causes a ruckus on the plane during mid-flight because he thinks he’s at home with Gwen instead of on a plane with John. John tries to calm Willis down, but Willis gets even more belligerent, as he gets up and yells for Gwen. John ends up having to physically restrain Willis. And when they disembark from the plane, Willis wanders away from the baggage claim area when John steps away for a few minutes.
It’s too bad that Wills’ vile temper can’t be restrained. The movie is filled with Willis’ unbridled rants where he makes it clear to anyone who listens that he’s a politically conservative bigot. Willis expresses disgust that John voted for Barack Obama, whom Willis calls a “Negro,” which might have been an acceptable term for black people before the 1970s, but not these days.
Willis also uses a homophobic slur for gay men several times through the movie. At one point, Willis asks John if John is sure that he’s gay. Willis’ tone of voice makes it clear that he wishes that John were straight. As for Willis’ thoughts on possibly moving to California, he shouts: “California is for cocksuckers and flag burners!”
Willis barely tolerates John’s husband Eric, whom Willis keeps misidentifying as Japanese, when Eric is actually Chinese and Hawaiian. Based on Eric’s reaction (he politely corrects Willis), this racial insensitivity is something that Eric has gotten used to from Willis, and it can’t be blamed on dementia. It’s made pretty clear from the flashbacks that Willis has been a jerk for a very long time.
And so, this obnoxiousness goes on and on for the entire movie. During a meal at John and Eric’s house, Willis lights up a cigarette, but John politely reminds him that they don’t allow smoking inside the house. What does Willis do? He puts out his cigarette in the food he was served. In another scene later in the movie, Willis throws raw eggs at John when John suggests that Willis have a healthier diet.
A family meal at Sarah’s home with John, Eric, Sarah and their kids cant go without Willis making derogatory comments. Sarah’s son Will has recently dyed his hair blue. Willis comments on his grandson’s hair by saying, “Do you want to be a homo?” He makes other homophobic comments until a distressed Will gets up and leaves the table, but not before telling Willis that he’s ashamed to be named after him.
As insufferable as Willis is, there are miserable haters like this who exist in the world, and they want everyone else to be as miserable as they are. Willis might be difficult to watch, but “Falling” seems to be making an often-heavy-handed point that this is what happens when toxic people go unchecked. Pity anyone who has to live with someone like Willis in real life.
Willis’ filthy mouth isn’t just about spewing hate speech. This movie has a lot of talk of bodily functions (urinating, defecating and farting), and most of these cringeworthy comments are from Willis. In one scene in the movie, Willis tells his granddaughter Mónica that when John was a child, John used to be so frightened of an imaginary monster named Mortimer, that John used to “shit the bed.”
In another scene, Willis has a prostate exam to determine if he needs surgery for prostate cancer. In the examination room, with John in the room, Willis tells the physician named Dr. Klausner (played by filmmaker David Cronenberg, who’s worked with Mortensen on several movies): “Don’t let my son anywhere near my asshole. He’s likely to get excited.”
John and Sarah mostly react to their father’s hate-filled rants by trying not to argue with him. A lot of viewers will be frustrated by how Willis isn’t called out enough for his despicable comments and actions, regardless if he has dementia or not. However, as uncomfortable as it may be to watch, John and Sarah’s enabling is very realistic of how people try to ignore bigotry and hate instead of trying to confront it and stop it.
John and Sarah also seem afraid to confront their father because even though he’s an ailing old man, John and Sarah still seem to be a little bit afraid of him. Scenes in the movie show that Willis has a violent temper. And so, there’s probably unspoken violent abuse that Willis inflicted on his kids when they were young that still haunt John and Sarah.
However, the best scene in the movie is when John finally unleashes and gives Willis the verbal takedown he very much deserves. A lot of viewers will be thinking about John finally standing up to his father: “What took you so long?” Other viewers might have different reactions.
One of the few scenes in the movie where the family isn’t under some kind of emotional attack from Willis is when John, Eric, Mónica and Willis all go to an art gallery together. John’s mother Gwen loved art, so this trip to the gallery is his way of trying to pass along Gwen’s appreciation of art to Mónica. However, this relatively calm family outing is rare, because most of what the Peterson family experiences in this story revolves around Willis’ negativity and problems that he usually creates.
The flashback scenes in “Falling” answer some questions about the Peterson family dynamics, but leave other questions unanswered. For example, viewers never get to see how John and Sarah were raised by Gwen after the divorce. And this omission is an indication that the flashbacks are mostly from Willis’ perspective. Maybe this disjointed way of telling the story is writer/director Mortensen’s way of depicting what fractured memories in dementia feel like. The final scene of “Falling,” just like the rest of the movie, can be frustratingly muddled, because it’s better at expressing moods than fine-tuning the details.
Perceval Pictures and Quiver Distribution released “Falling” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and on VOD on February 5, 2021.