“Falling”: Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut is convincing

“Falling” starts in cinemas on August 12th. The directorial debut by and with “The Lord of the Rings” star Viggo Mortensen is a total work of art.

Why does Viggo Mortensen (62) still not have an Oscar in the closet? Film fans and industry experts have been asking themselves this question at least since the box office hits “Captain Fantastic – Once Wilderness and Back” (2016) and “Green Book – A Special Friendship” (2018). The Danish-American all-rounder was nominated for “Best Actor” for both, and Mortensen got his first chance in the main male category back in 2008. At that time, despite his impressive portrayal in the thriller “Tödliche Versuche – Eastern Promises” (2007), he missed out , as well as in the following years.

With “Falling” the directorial debut of the “Lord of the Rings” star will start in German cinemas on August 12th. Mortensen also wrote the script, acted as co-producer, was responsible for the background music and plays the leading role. The 62-year-old has once again created an Oscar-worthy total work of art that is convincing across the board – with a touching tragic story, great performance and an impressive scenic and musical setting.

A difficult father-son relationship: that’s what it’s about

Willis Peterson (Lance Henriksen, 81) is widowed twice and lives alone and bitterly on his rural farm in New York State. His son John (Mortensen) has known the anger of his homophobic, racist father for as long as he can remember. And even in old age, Willis makes no secret of the fact that he deeply detests the lifestyle of his son who is openly homosexual. The outwardly strong man from the Midwest once tried to raise his son to be a “real man”. But the open-minded, tolerant John completely distanced himself as an adult from the male role model of his father, which is characterized by aggressiveness and narrow-mindedness.

When Willis is struggling with the onset of dementia, John takes him to his home in California, where he lives with his husband Eric (Terry Chen, 46) and their daughter Monica (Gabby Velis), despite the painful memories of their past together. There Willis lets the negative feelings towards his son run wild – and suddenly John has full responsibility for the man who has hurt him the most in life.

Viggo Mortensen wrote the screenplay for “Falling” after a private stroke of fate. In 2015, his mother, Grace Gamble Atkinson, died, who, like the main character Willis, suffered from dementia. The actor told the newspaper “Observer” in February of this year, he then just wanted to “remember things about her”. The result, which hits the big screen four years later, reflects “feelings rather than facts”; Mortensen’s own family history was used purely as a source of inspiration for a fictional plot. Nevertheless, he dedicated the finished film to his two brothers Peter and Charles Mortensen. One of the first scenes in the film, in which a young John shoots a duck and then takes it to bed, actually happened in Mortensen’s life, as he revealed to talk show host Conan O’Brien in 2017.

Short-tempered tyrant vs. good-natured calm pole

If there is one thing that catches the viewer’s eye when going to the cinema, it is the sheer number of swear words that family tyrant Willis uses in the course of the drama. In flashbacks, director Viggo Mortensen portrays the character (played brilliantly as a young man by Swede Sverrir Guðnason, 42) as a quick-tempered, bossy and unpredictable macho who taught his son how to shoot ducks from an early age and played him with the dead animal after his first hit leaves. However, Mortensen’s characterization is not quite as simple as one might think at first. Instead, the psychological background is given sufficient space. Several times there are indirect indications woven into the plot that Willis, too, suffered from a strict father at a young age and was badly wounded. His progressive illness also generates compassion on the part of the audience for the fragile old man, who repeatedly confuses the identities of his two deceased wives.

On the other hand, there is Mortensen’s own character, the loving and good-natured John. During the almost two-hour film, he remained calm almost throughout and accepted the attacks from his father, which he had endured his entire life, with grace. He exudes an emotional stability and strength, which in view of the difficult and sometimes traumatizing experiences of his childhood and growing up are absolutely astonishing. Only at the peak of the plot curve does he lose his self-control once; a dispute between him and his father escalates into a noisy battle of words, the emotionality of which can hardly be surpassed. As a screenwriter, filmmaker and actor, the 62-year-old Viggo Mortensen gives an important insight into the mental life of his main character and makes it clear that even with the oh so composed-looking John, it is boiling violently under the surface. The calm facade – a kind of protective armor – seems to have been trained over many years in order not to give power to the deeply hurtful words of the father.

The bottom line: Why you should see “Falling” (several times)

The story of “Falling” is told relatively quickly and is not new in long Hollywood history. However, Viggo Mortensen stages it in a deeply touching and compassionate way, so that it occupies the audience long after the credits. He gives the different emotional worlds of his characters as much space as the imagination of the audience, which has to spin the story for itself after the open end.

As a performer, Mortensen proves again what he really doesn’t have to prove to anyone: that he suits complex, demanding roles like hardly anyone else. Just through his facial expressions, the star from the US state of New York says more than a thousand words, the interaction with his talented colleagues – including the Oscar-nominated Laura Linney (57) – is harmonious. Mortensen originally didn’t want to take on the leading role in his directorial debut himself, as he also revealed in an interview with the “Observer”. Just the insight that his material would not find a financier without him as a prominent draft horse made him not only stand behind but also in front of the camera.

What makes “Falling” a work of art that has to be viewed as a whole is, in particular, Mortensen’s work away from the limelight. The big screen star, who is also a photographer, poet, painter, and musician, has an influence on every aspect of film production. A special aesthetic is immediately noticeable in terms of the scenic design and sequence, which is accompanied by predominantly calm piano music. It also comes from Viggo Mortensen himself, the actor was previously on the soundtrack of “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (2003). The overall aesthetic, however, often remains freely interpretable and does not reveal itself to the audience in full, which is why it is worthwhile to pay close attention when going to the cinema – or to watch “Falling” several times.