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Falling review – Viggo Mortensen’s superbly acted directorial debut

The Lord of the Rings actor writes, directs, and stars in this ambitious tale of fathers and sons, loosely based on his own life

At first glance, Viggo Mortensen’s Falling looks a lot like any other “Actor’s Directorial Debut.” It’s an actors’ piece, first and foremost, with a story lifted, at least in part, from Mortensen’s own life. Yet, while Falling does fit into this common pattern it is also, for better and worse, a much stranger and more offbeat proposition than it initially appears – an examination of human fragility with some striking stylistic quirks, which feels very much of a piece with Mortensen’s unpredictable career as a performer.

As well as taking on the behind-the-camera duties, Mortensen stars as John, a gay airline pilot who is attempting to find a new home for his homophobic, misanthropic father Willis (Lance Henriksen). Willis is in the early stages of dementia, but still managing a large-ish farm in wintry upstate New York. John wants him to quit that life and downsize to California, where he can be looked after.

Willis is, all told, a vile man, but Henriksen is still captivating in the role, capturing both his toxic, impotent rage and the bone-deep fear he feels as his mind slowly slips away from him. Falling is not a conventional dementia film, though, Willis’s illness often shunted to the backburner, especially as the outbursts it causes are mostly indistinguishable from his general personality.

That isn’t to say it isn’t rather deftly handled, but Mortensen, who also writes, clearly doesn’t want any one element of the film to overpower the rest. His script flashes back and forth through time, taking us to John’s childhood in the company of an increasingly hostile Willis (played impressively as a younger man by Sverrir Gudnasson). These flashbacks are great, John’s family home feeling believably lived-in, and the relationship between his parents conveyed with great economy.

Brief moments of genuine warmth from Willis are almost as comforting to us as they are to young John, his capacity for empathy making for an unpredictability that is more interesting than had Willis been a straight-up villain. The modern day stuff, though very well-acted by both Mortensen and Henriksen, is a little more rote, especially the obligatory awkward family dinner, the familiarity of which robs it of the powerful punch it’s aiming for.

Though Falling is certainly an actors’ showcase, Mortensen avoids it becoming a chamber piece thanks to frequent time skips and some handsome photography of the chilly east coast landscape. Elsewhere, he consistently finds imaginative and immersive ways to frame Willis and John’s monologues. There’s a particular eeriness to Willis’s self-aggrandising recollections, the world falling away until Henriksen is the only one left, lost in his own world.

Some of the stylistic flourishes are less successful than others – the final scene strikes a very odd tone – but it’s exciting to see this first-time filmmaker showing off some real visual ambition. He’s worked with some of the most exciting directors in the business – David Cronenberg even makes a playful cameo here – and their influence has clearly rubbed off on him. This is the kind of flawed but fascinating debut that promises great things going forward.

Falling is released in UK cinemas on December 4.

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