‘Falling’: Slurs Don’t Make for a Good Gay Movie [Review]
Out of Sundance, Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut Falling earned rave reviews. It went on to be included in the lineups for Cannes, TIFF, and other prestigious festivals. But LGBTQ+ writers have been much more discerning and critical than their straight and cisgender peers. That dissonance should make the need for authentic, varied queer representation onscreen and in the industry at large abundantly clear. At its heart, Mortensen’s film is a well-intentioned but lazily written slog that loses sight of its nuanced ambitions in favor of low-hanging fruit. It could have been a unique exploration of conservative family and dementia, but, instead, it deteriorated into an exhausting, homophobic mess of a movie.
Falling is a drama that fluctuates between the past and the present to dissect the relationship between the bigoted Willis (Lance Henriksen) and his gay son John (Viggo Mortensen). As his father’s dementia gets progressively worse, John decides to move Willis out to California where he can be closer to him and his younger sister (Laura Linney). Before Willis can find a home for himself, he has to live with John, his husband Eric (Terry Chen), and their adopted daughter Monica (Gabby Velis). While Willis does get closer to Monica, his disgust toward his son’s identity and relationship never changes.
There are some gorgeous shots by cinematographer Marcel Zyskind, who will hopefully get better material to work with soon, and Ronald Sanders’ editing is truly remarkable. After a long and incredibly successful career working with David Cronenberg, Sanders’ is exploring other genres and editing styles (although still with Cronenberg given his cameo appearance here). His experience in more experimental genre films aids tremendously in navigating tone, perspective, and tension. Alas, neither he nor Zyskind can save material this exploitative and uncaring.
Its cast is a wonderfully assembled group of actors—Mortensen, Lance Henriksen, Laura Linney, Sverrir Gudnason, Hannah Gross, Terry Chen, and the aforementioned Cronenberg—but they fall into the same overdramatic trappings as Mortensen’s screenplay. Henriksen, in particular, lacks much depth in his approach to his homophobic character. The moments in which his dementia cloud his awareness are the closest he comes to any sense of truth, but, immediately after those fleeting seconds, his character resorts to slurs and cartoonish outbursts. Linney offers the strongest performance in the whole film, but her part is relegated to a single scene that reveals much less than it thinks it does. Intended to be a pivotal moment in the movie, it instead reads as an over-sentimental retreading of belabored topics and repetitive motifs.
Mortensen is fine in his role, but there’s nothing about his performance that rings true in its portrayal of gay masculinity. He is entirely void of any personality or eccentricity. The flashbacks to his childhood self have vastly more character and queer spirit than he does as an adult. If he were trying to make a case about the suppression of gayness in those who grew up in homophobic households, he very easily could have. But that is yet another missed opportunity here.
As a writer, Mortensen shows hints of potential in his ability to structure a complicated narrative framework, but where he falters is in his dialogue and attention to detail. Whenever he doesn’t know where to take Henriksen’s Willis, he floods his scenes with unnecessary slurs, vicious language, and thoughtless, bitter characterization. No matter what your story is about, there needs to be glimpses at the humanity and kindness of your cruelest characters. We have to understand their motives and it’s clear that Mortensen thought his many flashbacks would be enough to explain Willis’ homophobia and racism. They were not. Beyond his odious and honestly negligent dialogue, Mortensen’s critical eye is nowhere to be seen in the film’s transitions. Despite his ability to structure this time-hopping drama on paper, his execution completely falls short. Certain visual cues are supposed to trigger Willis’ memory and bring us back into the past with him, but they’re nowhere near as striking or similar to function as intended.
I hope (but don’t expect) Falling to be a warning sign for other cisgender heterosexual filmmakers considering making LGBTQ+ media on their own. Mortensen’s film returned to overdone tropes of pre-2000s queer representation that exclusively center on homophobia. There is one entirely sexless kiss in the final scenes of the film and absolutely no joy, tenderness, or love beyond that. After being spoiled with so many queer and trans narratives by queer and trans filmmakers, Falling is a crucial reminder of why we need even more. Straight people directing queer stories is distasteful not only because it’s taking opportunities away from LGBTQ+ people, but also because their work tends to lack compassion, insight, or subtlety on queer matters. Our community deserves much more than straight filmmakers and straight critics telling our stories and judging them, and it’s time we firmly say so.