Viggo Mortensen’s Directorial Debut About A Problematic Grandpa, ‘Falling,’ Premieres At Sundance

“Well, he may have been a commie greaseball who painted like a retard, but he probably had his pick of the farmhouse pussy.”

This is how the dementia-addled, sundowning retiree Willis (Lance Henriksen) describes Picasso when he visits the museum with his gay son, John (Viggo Mortensen), John’s tattooed Asian nurse husband (Terry Chen) and their Spanish speaking adopted daughter.

Willis’s frequent outbursts — about queers, “that negro” (Obama, who has recently been elected), whores, and Thai food — are frequently funny, especially in the beginning, even as he’s clearly a nightmare scenario for his family. A disapproving father whose dementia makes him repeat all his bigoted jokes and patronizing lectures, straight to all the people he suddenly has to rely on (homos and foreigners though they may be).

It’s a compelling dynamic, at least at first. The film, Mortensen’s debut as a director, cuts between John and Willis’ trip from Willis’ farm in upstate New York to John’s home in Santa Monica (Willis chugs a stranger’s drink on the plane and gets lost in the bathroom) and Willis as a young father (played by Sverrir Gudnason, who looks like a Euro Garrett Hedlund and is probably the better actor) raising his towheaded child with his pretty young wife (Hannah Gross).

Willis is, well, an asshole. And only gets more assholey as the film goes on. Henriksen is sharp, his voice gravelly, skin wizened, though it’s almost pathological the degree to which the film keeps surrounding him with more and more signifiers of social liberalism — a gay son, a tattooed Asian son in law, a goth niece, a nephew with blue hair, a Hispanic granddaughter (with whom Mortensen’s character speaks some truly atrocious Spanish). As Willis becomes an increasingly irredeemable asshole (even in flashbacks he becomes an abusive, controlling father without much insight as to why) Mortensen’s character fails to evolve much beyond Nice Man Who Tries To Do The Right Thing. (Admittedly, Viggo has amazing bone structure, and at 61 is aging incredibly well). Willis bad, John good — they’re almost an intergenerational goofus and gallant act. Willis: calling the fish at a restaurant “whores,” John: …not doing that. Bland goodness, it turns out, is kind of dull.

I kept hoping the flashbacks — which are well-conceived, richly shot, and nicely acted (other than Laura Linney’s scene) — would complicate the picture of their dynamic or offer some insight, but mostly they just hammer home the same things. Though not intentionally, Falling is a certain kind of comment on the kind of people still clinging to Obama-era liberalism. There’s no reason for it to even be set during the Obama era other than to make its politics (such as they are) safer for its intended audience. It’d be one thing if all these totems of social liberalism felt natural, but after a certain amount of repetition, they start to feel rote, like try-hard recitation of now-acceptable non-conformity in the hopes of eliciting a head pat from the intended audience. Piercings! Tattoos! Hair dye! Homosexuals! Not only does it sort of flatten sexuality to the level of fashion choice by implication, it’s only really non-conformist in opposition to Willis — who is plainly a sad, fumbling relic.

Willis’ bigoted vulgarity allows the film to present John entirely in contrast to his father. Without his mean, old chauvinist homophobic racist dad, John isn’t much of a character. Willis’ outbursts are without fail Falling’s most compelling moments, which gives his non-political correctness an almost fetishistic appeal — yeah, slap me in the face and call me a slur, daddy, with an actual daddy.

Falling does have impressive comedic construction and timing for a movie without much in the way of a point of view. The idea of anything outside the safe Obama-era neoliberal rules of propriety is so dirty and bad and wrong that Falling can’t help but seem horny for it (Falling avoids any economic issues to an almost absurd degree, to the point that Willis is presented as both shooting-his-dinner poor as a young dad and then allegedly rich as an old grandpa with no explanation in between). It reminds me a bit of the old stereotype about Germans loving shit porn — a rigid, proper society eschewing “filth” so much that they inevitably get off on it.

That’s the trouble with self-congratulatory progressiveness: it cedes naughtiness to the fascists. John, and Falling as a whole, desperately need some naughtiness and mischief. In place of a point of view, it seems to have “not my dad.”

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.