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Lance Henriksen has built a career on genre movies in which he was required to do little more than turn up and be Lance Henriksen – a big growling badass. It’s great to see him doing some actual acting, which is what he’s called on to do in Falling, a movie written and directed by Viggo Mortensen, who co-stars.

Henriksen is the dad whose creeping dementia means he’s now increasingly reliant on his son, John (Mortensen), which is awkward for both of them since dad Willis (Henriksen) is a raging homophobe who can just about keep it in check… and John is married to a man (Terry Chen).

Dad is now in the “godforsaken shithole” of California – a state full of “fags” and “pansies” – because he’s no longer able to keep things going back at the farm. Dad isn’t just a homophobe, he’s a full-bore reactionary. “This Picasso fellow, he may have been a commie greaseball that painted like a retard,” Willis opines on an art gallery outing, “But I bet he had his pick of all the foreign pussy.”

By contrast, the son is a saint, Mortensen doing well as the guy who has decided that forebearance is the best policy, a decision that’s put to the test every time dad opens his mouth.

Good chunks of the film take place in flashback, where dad recalls John’s early years as a time of bonding on sun-dappled fishing or hunting trips, while his son remembers his dad being an asshole who was actually even worse back then, when being an asshole male was more acceptable.

Big rangy Henriksen is a very plausible father to big rangy Mortensen – both have Nordic ancestry – and is a lot more nuanced in his performance than he might have been. There’s humour in his line delivery. On hearing that he needs a prostate examination, Henriksen growls “I”m not letting some California fairy up my ass” in a way that made the corners of my mouth twitch. That “California fairy” is played, incidentally, by David Cronenberg in a fleeting cameo. Well, if someone’s going to stick a finger up there, you might as well get the master of the macabre – a humorous piece of casting by Mortensen, a regular collaborator with Cronenberg (his director in Eastern Promises, A History of Violence and A Dangerous Method).

Laura Linney also turns up in a brief performance freighted with the same sort of “coping with dad” nervousness that John displays, as the daughter keeping things perpetually bright and bubbly in an attempt to head dad off at the pass of his own rages.

Young John and dad on a hunting trip
Happy days? Young John and his dad on a hunting trip

Henriksen was 80 when this was made and has probably seen people close to him losing their minds to dementia. He is particularly good in moments where Willis goes to grasp for something in his mind, only to find, again!, that it isn’t there. I’d have liked more of that because, great though Henriksen is – and this is entirely his film, not Mortensen’s – things do get a touch one-note after a while, when dad launches into his latest tirade.

If you want a film about a horrible old man who, in his youth turned out to have been even more horrible, this is it. There are suggestions here and there of a different sort of film, one that interrogates more forensically the “fags” and “pansies” of our modern world and even finds something admirable in this tough old survivor. When John asks his dad not to spark up a cigarette in the living room because “we don’t allow smoking in the house”, you’re momentarily with the old guy.

There are moments of visual poetry too, unexpectedly, in beautifully composed “pillow shots” (as Ozu called them), little cutaways to a moment stolen from nature, away from the raging. They are interesting arthouse additions and beautiful in their own way, though not entirely of a piece with the rest of the film, which is more an exercise in straight, traditional storytelling. This is Mortensen’s writing and directing debut. Which way is he going to go next?

Falling – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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