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Lance Henriksen, left, and Viggo Mortensen in Falling, Mortensen's directorial debut.Brendan Adam-Zwelling/Courtesy of Mongrel Media

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  • Falling
  • Written and directed by Viggo Mortensen
  • Starring Viggo Mortensen, Lance Henriksen and Hannah Gross
  • Classification R; 102 minutes
Critic’s Pick

Just as some years get duelling asteroid-heading-toward-Earth movies (1998′s double shot of Deep Impact and Armageddon) or competing biopics of Winston Churchill (2017′s Churchill and Darkest Hour), 2021′s twin-film phenomenon is, apparently, the dementia drama.

Arriving in a few weeks, Florian Zeller’s The Father casts Anthony Hopkins as the titular character, a London engineer whose grasp on reality begins to slip as his daughter (Olivia Colman) attempts to move him out of his flat. The film, which places its audience in the headspace of a man falling further into confusion, is an elegant and strangely pleasurable experience – Hopkins’s grandstanding performance helps Zeller’s conceit go down smoothly.

Falling, the season’s other new film about a patriarch’s mental undoing, is decidedly less pleasant. But also more ambitious and ultimately unforgettable.

Viggo Mortensen will not be taking Hollywood’s suggestions, thanks

Written and directed by Viggo Mortensen, Falling focuses on a proud man fighting both the inevitable ravages of time and the wishes of his grown children. But instead of Hopkins as a charming gentleman of refinement, Mortensen has veteran character actor Lance Henriksen take on the role of a truly stubborn SOB – a codger who refuses to bend to anyone or anything.

As Willis, Henriksen spurts out so much racist, homophobic and just plain cruel invective at his supposed loved ones – including Mortensen as his son John and Laura Linney as his daughter Sarah – that it’s a wonder why he hasn’t been left to die on his own years ago. But just as real life can be a frustrating, prolonged battle of responsibilities and intractable bonds, so, too, can a film be complicated, uneasy and hard to stomach.

Open this photo in gallery:
FALLING (2020). Lance Henriksen as Willis in FALLING. John (Viggo Mortensen) lives with his partner, Eric (Terry Chen), and their daughter, Monica (Gabby Velis), in California, far from the traditional rural life he left behind years ago. His father, Willis (Lance Henriksen), a headstrong man from a bygone era, lives alone on the isolated farm where John grew up. Willis’s mind is declining, so John brings him west, hoping he and his sister, Sarah (Laura Linney), can help their father find a home closer to them. Their best intentions ultimately run up against Willis’s angry refusal to change his way of life in any way. In his directorial debut, Mortensen explores the fractures and contrasts of a contemporary family.

Henriksen leaves a mark as Willis, a headstrong old man who refuses to bend to anyone or anything.Brendan Adam-Zwelling/Courtesy of Mongrel Media

For some audiences, Willis’s arc – including flashback scenes in which he’s played by Sverrir Gudnason, a dead-ringer for Mortensen himself – might be unbearably gruelling. Mortensen, in his first ever directorial outing, is clearly not interested in easy characters or Hallmark-level emotion. As he traces Willis’s doomed first marriage to his push-pull relationship with John, the filmmaker creates a tense, even courageous look at the ugly reality of family, of trying to reconcile who you are with from where you came. There are hard truths here, and Mortensen has no time for those unwilling to swallow down.

Henriksen, who has excelled in projects both worthy (Aliens) and disposable (a whole lot of Pumpkinhead movies), has never been the recipient of such directorial care and attention as here. He leaves such an intentionally large and ugly bruise on the film that it seems Willis has been travelling alongside the actor all this time.

Shooting mostly in Ontario, Mortensen also benefits from stacking his cast with local talent, including the Gross family (Hannah plays Willis’s first saintly wife; Paul has a walk-on as a patient doctor) and the Eastern Promises star’s regular collaborator David Cronenberg (heartily amusing as Willis’s proctologist).

Mostly, Falling succeeds because Mortensen is playing by his own uncompromising rules. The result is a vision that may grate, but will never be lost to memory.

Falling is available on-demand, including the digital TIFF Lightbox and Apple TV/iTunes, starting Feb. 5

In the interest of consistency, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)

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