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Lance Henriksen Rages Against the Dying of the Light in Viggo Mortensen’s ‘Falling’

Viggo Mortensen, Director

By MovieBabblePublished 3 years ago 5 min read
Quiver Distribution



Recently, we lost the great character actor Hall Holbrook, at the comfortable age of 95. Soon after, we lost the legendary Christopher Plummer, who managed to reach the age of 91 — not too shabby either. Every time an aging filmmaker or performer is mentioned on our newsfeeds, we fear the worst. They aren’t supposed to die. It doesn’t matter if they are retired. Those legends on the screen, who gave us so much pleasure in our youth and into our adulthood, deserve an eternity of luxury for it — though it would be nice to see them on screen once in a while, or in the case of a behind-the-scenes filmmaker, to see their name in the credits.

But as my father, a fellow cineast and professional pessimist, continuously reminds me whenever I come to visit, “in the next decade, we will lose so many of them. It’s unavoidable. Our cinematic heroes follow the same rules as we do.”

But let’s be honest, it’s not the prospect of death that makes old age terrifying, it’s decay, the dying of the light. It’s losing your vitality, both physically and mentally. It’s not being able to remember pertinent details in your life, loved ones that were so dear to you. To not be able to raise one’s endorphins through exercise, or how the simplest activity, such as walking up the stairs, can turn into a deathly endeavor. “Getting old sucks”, as my father, now in his late sixties, often repeats. And I’m afraid it does.

Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut, Falling, is partly about the decay of old age. The horrors of dementia, a mind lost in a quagmire of the past. But it also uses the subject of dementia to explore our relationship with memories, how it shapes our perception of the present moment.

More than that, Falling is an incredible work of cinematic fiction, an American family drama that rekindles the raw honesty of seventies filmmakers like John Cassavetes. It also features one of the greatest on-screen performances by legendary character actor, Lance Henriksen.

We Can’t Choose Our Fathers, Nor Our Sons

“I’m sorry I brought you into this world, just so you could die,” says Willis (Sverrir Gudnason), to his newly born son. This already indicates the dark mindset of his patriarchal figure, something that will only grow in time.

In the present, we see that Willis has morphed into a cantankerous old man (Lance Henriksen), who’s showing signs of early-onset dementia. His son, John (Viggo Mortensen), realizing his father won’t be able to take care of himself anymore, flies his father to his home in Southern California in order to help him with new arrangements.

Welcoming his father into his home means enduring his verbal abuse. Willis, a hardline conservative from a bygone era with a bigoted streak that would make Tucker Carlson blush, is completely different from his openly gay son, John. The fact that John also married a male nurse, Eric (Terry Chen), who isn’t white, only complicates the matter.

In their week together, we move back and forth into the past. Sometimes these memories stem from Willis’ fractured mind, other times they come from John. As John tries to make his father understand that things will be different, Willis continually refuses his support, determined to live on his own terms.

Lance Henriksen

If you’re a film buff, you’ve likely seen the hardened face of Lance Henriksen. If you like your classic blockbusters, you’ve seen him as the kindly android Bishop in Aliens. If you like dumb action movie shlock, you’ve probably seen him as the villainous biker Chains Cooper in Stone Cold. You might have seen him as FBI consultant Frank Black, investigating all kinds of paranormal weirdness in the TV show, Millennium — a show that unlike The X-files, knew how to end with dignity. He’s also lent his gravelly voice for numerous cartoons, like The Legend of Kora. Hell, if you’ve wasted your time with cheap VOD horror sequels as I did, you might have seen him in that one Hellraiser movie the one co-starring a young Henry Cavill. (I’m not going to bother looking up the actual title because I’ve wasted enough time on that POS.)

Henriksen is a worker. An absolute legend. A man with incredible cinematic gravitas. It’s hard to keep your eyes off him when he’s on the screen. Usually, he gives a welcoming supporting performance, but in Falling, he finally has his hooks again on a meaty leading role.

As you can probably deduce from the above synopsis, Willis is not a particularly kind man. He’s openly xenophobic, racist, homophobic, and sexist. In the past, we can see that he’s been neglectful to his wife and children, has a tendency to drink too much, and is prone to destructive temper tantrums.

It’s noteworthy that Falling takes place during the first term of Obama’s presidency; naturally, Willis voted for McCain. Though Obama’s official stance regarding gay marriage was still in opposition, minorities and the LBGTQ community did feel that his candidacy would precipitate America’s progressive conversion. Willis, like many white Americans, obviously fears the changing of the guard, the transformation of America’s culture, and rallies against it. He feels that his “kind” is growing less and less significant.

With how John behaves around his father, taking his countless insults by stride, you can see he’s used to it. Yet at times, through Mortensen’s wonderful restrained performance, you can see how the occasional homophobic comment still hurts him.

It’s important to note that Falling is not about remorse. It’s not a redemption story. Perhaps a side of Willis does feel guilty about his past behavior, but regardless of his disease, he will simply never be able to own up to it. It’s too late for that. He’s been wallowing in his bigoted nonsense for far too long.

But, as is natural in the ways of human nature, Willis is not an entirely evil man. Despite his bigotry, there’s a lot of love as well. We see it especially in the way he behaves around his adopted granddaughter, comforting her, bonding with her when it comes to wetting the bed.

In Falling, we see Henriksen’s talents on full display. From uncomfortable close-ups to his aging face as he spurts out one offense comment after another, to the warmth he displays as he looks down on his granddaughter. It’s a complex and earnest performance, one that surely deserves the same accolades as Anthony Hopkins’ role in The Father. One scene in particular, in which Willis sits by the beach, reminiscing, enjoying the sun, is mesmerizing.

Though Henriksen has plenty of unforgettable performances in his career, Falling will certainly stand out among them.


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