What follows is a domestic drama focused on the never-healthy relationship between the father, a volcano of dark emotions, and his son, who responds to the old man’s attacks with patience, kindness, and a room-temperature voice. Anybody who’s tried to care for a loved one with dementia—especially one who was unlikable when they were still lucid—will recognize the situation that John’s been put in. He feels an innate familial loyalty, plus he’s a good man. He’s not going to abandon his father. But there’s only so much a person can take.
Mortensen makes his debut as a feature filmmaker here, writing the script, directing the movie, and composing and performing the film’s score with Buckethead, his regular collaborators. It’s impressive work all around. He has a sure hand and mostly excellent judgment.
And he guides his lead actor, Henriksen, to the richest lead performance of his long and distinguished career. He’s fully inhabiting a desperate, at times desperately alienating character: bitter and lacerating, a poison to those who love him best, raging against the dying of the light and everyone and everything else as well; yet also secretly a sentimentalist who gets lost in his own thoughts, particularly his memories of his wife and kids before he snapped his bond with them. As Willis’s mind recedes into the past, his scowl softens and his eyes grow wet with the tears he’s too macho to let himself cry. When people try to talk him off anger’s ledge, Willis bats a hand close his own face, as if to swat a buzzing mosquito—a theatrical touch that feels natural and right the way Henriksen does it. It’s impossible to overstate how great he is here, in a fecund role imagined by the filmmaker. This sundowning bully is King Lear minus a child, and with no kingdom to bestow: just a farm and some horses.
The most remarkable thing about “Falling” is not just how deftly Mortensen handles the cast (including Laura Linney as John’s kid sister) but how he navigates point-of-view. Part of the story takes place in the 1960s and ’70s, when John was a child and then a teenager, and the rest takes place in the present, and there are times when the movie goes inside the minds of Willis and John. Jumping between past and present, and often letting the sound drop out so that we can understand what’s at stake in a scene or sequence just by watching people’s body language in a sort of “silent movie” montage with music, this is not a typical “finally the actor directs” debut, where the camera is treated as a recording device for people standing there saying lines.