Darth Vader may be the cosmically worst cinematic father in the universe but down on earth Willis, as played by Lance Henriksen in the new film “Falling,” gives the “Star Wars” villain a run for his money.
Writer, director and star Viggo Mortensen found inspiration for the story after caring for his real-life father in his declining years. Mortensen plays John, husband of Eric (Terry Chen), son of Willis. He’s ex-Air Force, now working as a commercial pilot based in Los Angeles. It’s a long way from the rural New York farm where he was raised and his father still resides.
Willis isn’t doing well. Dementia has robbed him of the ability to live alone in the rambling old farmhouse he’s inhabited for decades. Hoping to make his father’s life easier, John brings him to California with an eye toward making it easier to care for him.
Trouble is, Willis’ disease has made him the definition of cantankerous. Anger, misogyny, and homophobia are a way of life for the old man who never misses an opportunity to spew his hatred. John bears the brunt of it, but Willis is an equal opportunity offender whose current bad attitude is a magnification of the behavior that tore his family apart decades before.
“Falling” gives genre legend Henriksen his meatiest role in years. He is the dominant and dominating character, a man who makes Archie Bunker look like Justin Trudeau. It’s a raw performance but after the first hour it becomes something close to parody as Willis’ insults become more and more vicious and increasingly inane.
Mortensen’s take on Jack is more nuanced. As the younger man searches for closure, Willis continuously tests the limits of his compassion and challenges the old man’s view of masculinity. Where Henriksen is playing to the back of the house, Mortensen is subdued, finding the character’s kindness in a very difficult situation.
We learn more about Willis in the flashbacks that make up about fifty percent of the movie’s running time. As a young misanthropist-in-the-making Willis is played by Sverrir Gudnason with a sneer and a quick tongue. The flashbacks are an origin story, a study in where Willis came from and a glimpse of the man he once was, for better and for worse, as he began driving everyone around him away. In these scenes he still has a remnant of his humanity, and therefore, is a more interesting character than his elderly counterpart.
“Falling” is a self-assured and sometimes poetic directorial debut for Mortensen, marred by a repetitive central character you don’t want to be around for the film’s 112-minute running time.