Willis is getting old and starting to lose mental control. We see him in an aeroplane trying to get to the top floor to see his – long dead – wife. His son, John, looks on in despair. They’re going to California, where John and his sister now live, to see if they can find a home for Willis where he’s more accessible to their care, though he flatly denies that he agreed to this. After all, California is full of faggots and flag burners.
Willis is an irascible bigot who constantly makes homophobic and racist rants, although John is now happily married to an Asian-American man. Flashbacks show that this is not the case of someone getting more intolerant with age – he was always a violent egomaniac, whose first wife (John’s mother) walked out on him because he made her life impossible to live.
As Willis continues to abuse anyone within shouting range, John looks on with despair. He’s taken the decision to absorb all of his father’s bile, to not raise to the bait and to silently watch on, as others – doctors, airline staff, relatives – get caught in the crossfire. One one level, what John does is very noble. On another, it is weak and cowardly.
It seems that Falling is an attempt by Mortensen to come to terms with his recently departed parents. It’s unclear to what extent the story is based on fact, but you’d assume that Mortensen’s father was domineering and his mother took the burden of the consequences of his actions. The film is dedicated to Mortensen’s brothers – presumably fellow-survivors.
Look, Viggo Mortensen seems to be one of the good guys, so much so that I’m prepared to overlook the woefully misjudged Green Book. And this is a very well made film. But please don’t make me go through the experience again. It’s two hours of being harangued by a racist homophobe, and the hero with whom I guess we’re supposed to identify just sits back and lets it all happen. Until he doesn’t, though the final conflict hardly resolves anything.
On top of that, if you take out the misanthropic rants, nothing actually happens. John’s sister comes to visit with her children – Willis behaves objectionably. They go out for a meal – Willis behaves objectionably. They return to Willis’s farm in New York State – he behaves objectionably. It’s a one note performance which is impressive in its sound and fury, but allows for no nuance.
I’ve read several articles recently which have argued that there are certain films and television series from the past that “they” won’t let you make any more. This is a left-liberal take on the “Political Correctness” gone mad argument. Apparently, directors are not allowed to portray racism and homophobia any more, even if they clearly distance themselves from their racist and homophobic characters. Falling blows this argument out of the water.
In this context, Falling could have been a very interesting film – a demonstration that for all the moral panic about a so-called “Cancel culture”, we still live in an intolerant world. And yet, Willis’s rage is somehow other-worldly. His boorishness has nothing to do with society – he is just a boor. He is now too old to change, but the flashbacks show that maybe he was never capable of change. We are handed his prejudices and just expected to accept them, take it or leave it.
Falling is superbly acted, and may well win some of the acting awards that it is clearly trying to attract. Acting Oscars generally go to over-the-top performances, not to a depiction of someone in whose company you want to spend any time. And yet Willis’s unpleasantness is so unmitigated that watching the film is a chore. Haven’t we better things to do with our time?
What are we supposed to feel when we watch Willis’s endless bigoted rants. Anger? Pity? A sense of moral superiority? Director-Writer-Actor-Score Composer Viggo Mortensen has a proud record of supporting radical campaigns, but it feels like Falling has been made to make smug liberals feel good about themselves. We may be ineffectual, but at least we’re not like that.
This may be good enough for smug liberals, but the rest of us deserve better. Please try again, Viggo, but I do hope your next attempt is slightly more engaging.