Viggo Mortensen as John Peterson
William Healy as 15 year old John Peterson
Etienne Kellici as 10-year-old John Peterson
Grady McKenzie as 5 year old John Peterson
Lance Henriksen as Willis Peterson
Sverrir Gudnason as a young Willis Peterson
Laura Linney as Sarah Peterson
Ava Kozelj as 10-year-old Sarah Peterson
Carina Battrick as 5 year old Sarah Peterson
Hannah Gross as Gwen Peterson
Terry Chen as Eric Peterson
Piers Bijvoet as will
Ella Jonas Farlinger as Paula
Script and direction: Viggo Mortensen
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The subject of dementia is so sad and ignorant that it is often approached on screen in two ways: humor or tragedy. While the former approach is certainly doable as humor is a coping mechanism for sadness, it often leads to unfair or dishonest depictions of the very real mental problem that many face as they age, while the latter approach generally overcomes a viewer the way beats head with the message to sympathize with those who suffer. While Viggo Mortensens Falling, may not strike the right balance between the two worlds, but it does offer a far more honest and raw portrayal of the disease, with debut writer / director / star and co-star Lance Henriksen doing the best of his career.
John (Viggo Mortensen) lives with his partner Eric (Terry Chen) and their daughter Mónica (Gabby Velis) in California, a far cry from the traditional rural life he left behind years ago. John’s father, Willis (Lance Henriksen), a headstrong man from a bygone era, lives alone on the remote farm John grew up on. Willis is in the early stages of dementia, making it increasingly difficult to run the farm on your own. John gets him to stay at his California home so he and his sister Sarah (Laura Linney) can help him find somewhere nearby to move to. Unfortunately, their best intentions ultimately come up against Willis’ relentless refusal to change the way he lives in the slightest.
Unlike most films that revolve around characters with dementia, the film takes an interesting narrative path in that it shows what Willis was like in John’s childhood and to this day, but instead of a kindhearted father whose battle with the disease turned him into one transforms contemptuous character, we have shown that it has always been problematic and that it presents a more compelling question for the viewer. How far does unconditional love for a parent go when it doesn’t give you a way to bond with them?
Mortensen draws from his own experiences and certainly does not hold back to create the character of Willis. He delivers a thoroughly conservative, wildly racist and homophobic misogynist whose time is long gone. Sometimes it works very well to create some gripping and emotionally heated moments between John and his father and Eric, Sarah and the rest of the extended family, but admittedly there are times when they get difficult to watch. It is undoubtedly an honest account of those who exhibited these behaviors before they developed dementia, which only exacerbates and brings out these negative traits more often and without filtering, but sometimes the writing dangerously approaches Willis’ portrayal of caricature more than a really complex one or faulty person.
However, this is often saved by Mortensen’s direction and the incredible performance of Henriksen in the role. The 80-year-old actor holds nothing back to bring Willis to life. He delivers every harsh criticism, terrible bow, and occasional expression of love and heartbreak with such truthful devotion that it is hard to completely hate or dislike his spiral. Be it John’s endless attempts to help his ailing father or the rare moments that indicate he is really deeply hurt by abandonment in his life. The way the story keeps characters from turning their backs on him endlessly helps create a similar connection in the audience to Willis and keep a glimmer of hope that he might come around.
While it feels a little familiar or predictable at certain moments, and Willis occasionally wanders into caricature territory, Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut nevertheless proves to be a powerful, beautifully shot, and incredibly executed honest portrayal of dementia that established the three-time Oscar nominee as a director Talent to wait for.