(Release Info London schedule; November 27th, 2020, Curzon Home Cinema)
John Peterson (Viggo Mortensen) lives with his partner, Eric (Terry Chen), and their daughter, Mónica (Gabby Velis), in California, far from the traditional rural life he left behind years ago. John's father, Willis (Lance Henriksen), a headstrong man from a bygone era, lives alone on the isolated farm where John grew up. Willis is in the early stages of dementia, making running the farm on his own increasingly difficult, so John brings him to stay at his California home so that he and his sister Sarah (Laura Linney) might help him find a place near them to relocate to. Unfortunately, their best intentions ultimately run up against Willis’s adamant refusal to change his way of life in the slightest. During his stay at John's California home, tension builds between Willis and the rest of the family. Willis’s abrasive nature, by turns caustic and occasionally funny, is aggravated by his memory loss, bringing past and present into conflict and causing old wounds and years of mutual mistrust between father and son rise to the surface. As Willis and John confront the events that have torn them, including their differing recollections of John’s mother Gwen (Hannah Gross), the challenge they face is to find a way to forgive each other, to accept what has happened in the past and, most importantly, what's happening to them in the present. We embark on a journey from darkness to light, from rage and resentment to acceptance and hard-won grace.
In "Falling", set in the winter of 2009, John is an ex-'Air Force' officer turned commercial pilot who lives in Los Angeles with his partner Eric and their adopted daughter, Mónica. His father Willis continues to live in the rural 'Northeast' on the large, isolated farm where John and his sister Sarah were raised, but he’s now struggling with the onset of dementia. Aware of the fact that running the farm on his own is becoming increasingly difficult, Willis agrees to travel to California with John in order to find a more manageable place to retire. The differences between John’s modern, urban life and sensibilities and Willis more conservative mind-set and ingrained prejudices come into stark contrast. As the story unfolds, the film moves back and forth in time, gradually exposing, through individual as well as shared memories of the two men; pivotal events that have defined their complex relationship. The dynamic of their relationship is driven by generational and geographical divides between a conservative, aging farmer and what he views as his wayward, morally weak son. It’s also a contrast between rural, heartland USA and 'West Coast' urban progressive society. In the end, the damaged bonds of familial affection that once united them, and which the story visits through their differing subjective recollections, aid them in overcoming some of the pain they've caused themselves and each other in the decades since John’s childhood. His father's shadow hung over the new home he made with his mother for years after they'd both moved on and found new partners. It's a complex and relatively unpredictable ailment that we've experienced up close, as we've been a caretaker in several instances.
John is the image of a certain kind of 'West Coast' progressive. By contrast, Willis, born and raised in America’s heartland and an independent farmer by trade, is the definition of a traditional conservative man. An important aspect of the movie is that it offers a compelling study of changing views of masculinity and traditional family models. Willis is a man who has always been fiercely independent and self-sufficient but struggles as his mind begins to betray him. He's slipping into a kind of confusion, and his memories are all coming back, like ghosts. He’s aware that his mind is playing tricks on him and he's angry about it. As the film cuts back and forth between the past and the present, we also meet Willis (Sverrir Gudnason) as a young man, first meeting the love of his life and raising a young family, a man who, while still obstinate, is not as hardened and angry as he eventually becomes. He's not very good at putting himself in the shoes of other people and understanding their feelings. He kind of expects everybody to think and act like he does. And if they don't, he's not very patient about it. He loves his son and he loves his family. He works very hard. He provides for them, and he puts food on the table. And at the same time, he's like an island emotionally. He's constantly fighting these wars, and he doesn't understand that if a relationship is a war, he can never win. As Willis gets older, his inflexibility ultimately drives John’s mother Gwen, the love of Willis’ life, to leave him, taking John and his sister Sarah with her. Willis will never get over this life-changing setback. The film weaves back and forth in time looking for clues as to where the rift began. A lot of the movie is about trying to understand why that breach happened.
John is trying to come to terms with his father’s bitterness, and Willis is trying to come to terms with the man John has become. The story is also about them resolving the conflicting feelings they've about John’s mother, Gwen. Gwen is the conscience of the movie. She's the fulcrum that the principal characters gravitate around. Gwen is someone who has a real love of life and who pretty effortlessly lives in the moment. There's a real searching quality about her, she's someone who enjoys expanding her world in various little ways, someone who's curious. And that curiosity is imbued with a really deep sense of caring, like a lot of women of that era, she has this yearning, this searching quality, but is also not entirely sure of how to express it. And when she’s met with resistance by the person who's supposed to love and support her, things become pretty difficult. When you're a kid, there's so much you don’t understand. And then when you're a grown-up, you get to know your parents from a broader point of view, but their world may be beginning to contract somewhat. It's a story about growing up and growing down at the same time. Subjectivity of perception and unreliability of memory are equally important themes in "Falling", underlying its narrative structure and enhancing our understanding of it's characters. It’s layered throughout with memory, and memory is imperfect. One person will remember the same moment, the same scene, the same person, differently than someone else will. We become fixated in these imperfect memories that come to define how we see ourselves and others.
The film explores the fractures and contrasts of a contemporary family. There are few relationships as fundamental and complex as that of parent and child, and few events as destabilizing as the loss of a parent; when the tethers that bind you to the earth are cut. It's in this shifting and reflective moment in life where the story is placed. Our mind is flooded with echoes and images of our family at different stages of our shared lives. Feeling a need to describe them. Impressions have evolved into a story primarily make up of conversations and moments that have never actually happened, parallel and divergent lines that feels right somehow, that widened our perspective of the actual memories we've built about our family. It seems as though these invented sequences allows to get closer to the truth of our feelings for our mother and father than any straightforward enumeration of specific memories can. It's about a fictional family that shares some traits with our own. The timelines and the structure of the flashbacks are roughly in place, and the visuals feel strong. The film is interested in what lens someone has chosen, why and how a scene is lit in a certain way, why a certain coat or dress is chosen. It's always liked the collaborative aspect of moviemaking, the opportunity to witness and fully participate in the story-telling process. If a movie works, it only works as well as the compromise everybody makes, the joint sacrifice that a team of creative people makes.
The visual style of "Falling" is natural and unaffected, with camera movement restricted to genuinely motivated moments. Recognized for his quiet, understated family dramas, often dealing with generational conflict, Ozu’s films employed a semi-austere, observational style that often allowed scenes to play out at length in a single frame. You see the space the characters inhabit and the scene can breathe, you can see the behavior and the gestures. The memory sequences generally have a warmer tone. The freedom of a memory-based story is that you don’t need to be dictated to by light continuity and you can really go off what feels right and follow your gut on the day. Memory is feeling, really. In the end, it’s all feeling, because you can’t remember the specifics of everything, but you can palpably recall how it felt. What's strikes about "Falling" is how it captures a very fundamental conflict at the heart of relationships and existence. We generally accept a fairly black and white version of what we perceive the truth to be, the truth of who we're and what has happened in our lives. But memory is much less of a fixed thing than we may wish to believe.
We choose which memories we keep with us and we only remember the events of our lives from our point of view. And then these imperfect memories come to define us and who we become. We become defined by these self-selected moments that we can remain stuck in for a long time, if not forever. Not everyone is forgiven. Not everybody figures out a way to communicate. Some people try and fail. Some don’t try very much at all. The way that you get acceptance and forgiveness in this story, and perhaps in most stories, is by making mistakes and at least sometimes admitting that you made those mistakes. If you believe in what you're doing individually and together with other individuals in a team, and events have been allowed to unfold in a way that’s specific and feels authentic to the characters from moment to moment, then there's a chance that other people will believe in the story, be drawn to it. The commitment to every detail of performance, of picture and of sound, that deep attention to having each element contribute to the creative whole, is what makes "Falling" a standout film.