Intentionally or not, there’s inherently something personal about movies directed by their main actors. While some folks are quick to denounce them as vanity projects or effortful attempts to inflate egos, the better ones — or, at least, the more interesting ones — tend to give us a more pointed look at these well-known performers. They shape their public images and help viewers understand how they see themselves and how they want us to see them. That doesn’t mean they’re always investing, but these types of projects can provide intriguing new looks into the stars we’ve grown accustomed to seeing. They can be glossy self-portraits or memoirs by way of cinema. They can be a window into their souls and an earnest chance to express their most creative self. But even the most self-reflective works don’t always work out.
Viggo Mortensen makes his screenwriting and directorial debut with Falling, a heavy (and sometimes heavy-handed) family drama in which Mortensen also stars as John, a mild-mannered pilot who takes a week off from work in order to spend time with his critical, outspoken, set-in-his-ways father (Lance Henriksen), a brittle senior who is never afraid to yell, demean, and belittle anyone and everyone around him. John and his family, including his husband (Terry Chen), his adopted daughter (Gabby Velis), and his sister (Laura Linney), all try their best to put up with the old man’s endless torments. After all, it’s not looking good for his future. He’s a relic of the past who haunts his family — even as he’s still among the living (if only for so long). His disgruntled children do everything they can to keep their decades-spanning feelings of anguish, remorse, and frustration toward their father to themselves, but Mortensen’s moody movie is unafraid to turn up the dial until it’s almost unbearable for anyone (them or us) to want to spend even a minute longer in this man’s narrow-minded company.
I applaud Mortensen’s firm conviction, especially as a first-time writer/director, for sticking to his guns and focusing so intently on this intentionally despicable, demented character. In a similarly committed portrayal, Henrisken heaps vile, disgust, and many four-lettered insults without even a passing second thought, and his dedication to the character makes this awful man come to life in intentionally very unpleasant ways. The actor trusts his director and co-star and allows himself to be cloaked in this tempered old man’s pitiful existence. He matches the restless spirit of the movie, one that’s true to its mind and only fears conventional approach. The results make for an intriguing, yet also highly inconsistent film that never comfortably finds its own groove. Much like his on-screen avatar, our director doesn’t really know what to do with this man. As a filmmaker, he’s given a great, dedicated performance, but Mortensen seems unsure how it can or should service the story he’s trying to tell with this belabored movie.
It’s both admirable and self-destructive that Falling never follows any sort of traditional story path. Never content to settle for being a modern father-son drama, Mortensen’s first feature includes many period-based flashback sequences which litter and inarticulately inform the film’s first half, though they’re oddly less frequent in the second half. Likewise, there are several impressionistic, dream-like sequences later in the movie which attempt to get us inside the unraveling mind of our cantankerous lead, but they’re all too infrequent and impartial to provide meaningful insight or reflection.
There’s an unmistakable desire on Mortensen’s part to explore the fragile nature of one’s history and mortality in unflinching regard. The film feels personal in the sense that it feels like the writer/director/actor is attempting to figure something out about the human condition through his work on this film. Hopefully, it proved to be cathartic and meaningful, though that explorative process doesn’t always result in the smoothest works of art. Mortensen’s early hand as a filmmaker doesn’t have the assurance yet to pull off its more abrasive inclinations, despite his confidence otherwise, and its odd bits of sweetness can feel jarringly misplaced and radically uneven. There are a few moments when Mortensen finds his stride and makes an introspective, if rather unbecoming, examination of what it means to care for our elders, even when they’ve refused (or still refuse) to do their part to raise us into decent or orderly people. The desire is ultimately admirable, in a sense, but the approach is often messy. It’s never half-hearted, but it’s less than graceful. These unsteady waters need a vigilant eye, and Mortensen just doesn’t have what it takes yet to pull off this kind of uninviting bit of film therapy — assuming, of course, that this story relates to his life in any literal way (reports have claimed that the movie is based on his history of caring for his elderly parents, but it’s unclear how much these characters are molded after his parental figures).
It’s intriguing that Viggo Mortensen has worked with some of our finest working directors, including Peter Jackson, Peter Weir, Ridley Scott, and David Cronenberg (who makes a cameo as a doctor), yet his directorial style doesn’t feel reminiscent of any of his peers. That’s not a criticism but rather an observation. Where so many actors try to mimic the works of past collaborators, Mortensen appears dead-set on making his own cocktail. The movie isn’t consistent enough to have its own style, but it showcases a first-time director who doesn’t simply want to do what’s expected of him. Will he make another movie as a director, and will it be in this vein? Who knows?
Hopefully, Mortensen made the movie he desired to make here, even if it might not connect to many outside viewers. It’s encouraging that he went forward with such an undeniably challenging and emotionally open movie during his first time in the director’s chair, but it’s all-the-more disappointing that it doesn’t come together in many connected ways. It’s hard to doubt his sincerity, and this movie does feel like an extension of his creative self — if, sometimes, in ways that are hard to read or fully engage with. There’s a poeticism and a vibrant sense of personal necessity to this movie that makes it hard to dismiss, but there’s too much in Falling that fails to invest an unsettled audience outside of clear attempts to hate this brash and arrogant old man. The true irony of Falling is that, for as much as Mortensen uses this movie as a platform for self-exploration, we hardly get a revealing or dynamic look at his own character in the movie. Too often, he is left to be the punching bag for his father’s string of criticism and angered political, social, gender, and racial views. For as liberated as Mortensen can seem by the weight lifted by this project, the film itself often falls under its own strained inability to give us a proper understanding of what it wants to say and what it hopes to glean from the fallibility of the human condition.