I’m sorry I brought you into this world … so you can die.
The best part of Falling, Viggo Mortensen‘s debut as writer/director, is a family dinner bringing the surviving members of the Peterson clan together in California. John (Mortensen) has gone through the emotionally arduous task of collecting his homophobic father (Lance Henriksen‘s Willis) from the family farm up north to stay with him, his husband (Terry Chen‘s Eric), and their daughter (Gabby Velis‘ Monica) in a bid to move him down now that old age and dementia are too obvious to ignore. With them are John’s sister Sarah (Laura Linney) and her teenage children to bring their collective to four generations. How they each react to Willis’ inevitable outbursts of rage becomes the perfect distillation of the American family’s rapid evolution while forcing us to question the filmmaker’s goal.
I say this because Mortensen obviously gets the disparity. He gets that his generation was raised to respect their elders no matter how horrible they have been to them growing up and at present. And his John knows that he can no longer engage with his father on a level of blind hate because it won’t solve anything. It will actually only make him angrier and Willis contented in a return to feeling superior—something he can’t achieve without victims to target. So he and Eric do their best to be non-reactive for their young daughter, steering her away from the chaos whenever they can. Sarah follows suit, stewing to the point of bursting and yet always changing the subject so as not to succumb to the explosion.
Her children (Piers Bijvoet‘s Will and Ella Jonas Farlinger‘s Paula), however, aren’t repressed enough to not call their grandfather on his bullshit by walking out or being utterly unimpressed by the outburst respectively. Their reaction is a necessity because it shows how unrepentant monsters like Willis have finally lost their stifling, patriarchal control. So what does Mortensen gain by letting the moment fizzle and disappear? What is gained by falling back in line to the repetitive song and dance routine wherein Willis grotesquely acts out for John to take it with an exasperated sigh? That he dedicates the film to two Mortensen men reveals that this is a very personal project (he agreed to play John because it secured financing for production), but it feels misguided to me.
Because what is it that we learn from the back and forth crosscutting through time? We learn that Willis (Sverrir Gudnason in flashbacks) did love his children’s mother Gwen (Hannah Gross). We learn that they were happy—whether or not it was because they embraced their gendered roles with limited frustration when it was just the two of them. But then they have John and the dynamic changes. Things are still good as long as they stick to their “duties,” but it’s a slippery slope growing slicker by the year until Sarah’s birth throws them over a cliff. Why? Because Willis is the man of the house. He calls the shots. He’ll make John into a man. He’ll makes sure Sarah dotes. So of course Gwen finally leaves.
What does that do? It gives him more reason to resent everyone, including his new wife Jill (Bracken Burns). He grows crueler and crueler until his impulse to be on top sees him committing violent acts upon his children. We infer that this is when John and Sarah began their trajectory to move as far away as they could, but what was it that brought them back? Pity? Empathy? Fealty? Families are complicated. I get that. But agreeing to close your eyes and ears to his actions is akin to condoning them. Maybe it’s callous on my part to think like Will and Paula (who aren’t much younger than me considering present-day is described as being during Obama’s first term), but Willis doesn’t warrant the power he’s given.
He definitely doesn’t warrant an almost sympathetic end where he’s allowed to remember the days before John’s birth as loving, happier times. Doing that not only renders Willis’ family as the problem, but it also works to excuse his vitriol as a result of being unable to help it. “He was a product of his time and didn’t know how to be a good husband or father when things got difficult.” Sorry, but that doesn’t fly anymore. It probably does with Mortensen’s generation and they may watch this film with a tear in their eye because they understand the pain and suffering they’ve tirelessly ensured they’d never bestow upon their own kids. But people my age? It makes us angry because it absolves too much evil.
To that end, however, both Viggo and Henriksen are fantastic. The latter is easy to abhor and the former easier to earn our sympathy whenever his patience wears thin. And I can’t begrudge the ways in which their characters are handled because it is authentic to how Willis’ oppression will continuing ruling them until his final breath (if not longer). The way John is written makes it so the tears he sheds for a man he loves despite everything fits, but only because the vantage from which Falling unfolds is archaically flawed. At a certain point we all have to allow ourselves the room to realize we don’t owe our parents anything for doing the bare minimum. Abuse should never be the price of room and board.
We as human beings deserve better than that. John and Sarah deserve better than that. Gwen and Jill definitely did too. Rather than forcing Willis to make amends, however, we’re forced to watch as the world normalizes his vile attitude. We’re made to watch as he hurls bigoted remarks at his son, slut-shames his wives, and pretends as though Eric doesn’t merit breathing the same air. We’re made to watch all that with the implicit request that we forgive him because he’s a dying old man who can barely keep the days straight. I said, “Okay” because I hoped Mortensen would acknowledge the danger of such a depiction. No amount of technical or artistic success can overcome the fact he doesn’t. Blood is no longer stronger than action.
courtesy of TIFF