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Review by Rich Cline | MUST SEE
dir-scr Viggo Mortensen
prd Viggo Mortensen, Daniel Bekerman, Chris Curling
with Viggo Mortensen, Lance Henriksen, Sverrir Gudnason, Hannah Gross, Terry Chen, Laura Linney, Gabby Velis, Bracken Burns, William Healy, Etienne Kellici, Grady McKenzie, David Cronenberg
release US Jan.20 sff,
SUNDANCE FILM FEST
TORONTO FILM FEST
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Flickering around in time, this sensitive drama very quickly gets under the skin of its characters, who are played by a superb ensemble of actors. With his writing-directing debut, Viggo Mortensen takes an observant approach that sketches a father-son relationship over several decades. It's beautifully assembled, packed with unrushed scenes that are both engaging and provocative, challenging the audience to take a reflective journey along with the characters.
Refusing to acknowledge his dementia, Willis (Henriksen) shouldn't be living alone on the rural family farm. His children John and Sarah (Mortensen and Linney) want him closer to them in California. On a visit, John glimpses the dramatic changes this will bring for his husband Eric (Chen) and their daughter Monica (Velis). Willis' deep-seated bigotry comes through in ways that aren't remotely subtle, but John has learned how to brush it off, and tries to gently steer Monica through this. When Sarah comes for dinner, it's a challenge for everyone to stay civil around him.
Willis' mind is occasionally muddled, so his reality is a swirl of memories, seeing himself as a young man (Gudnason) with his wife Gwen (Gross) as the cheeky John grows up (McKenzie, Kellici then Healy). Mortensen mined his own childhood for endearing anecdotes, giving the film a blast of real-life energy. Transitions are beautifully handled, mixing up the scenes with each character over the years while adding knowing details to build a remarkable bigger picture that extends over three generations.
Each actor is both charismatic and skilfully understated. Anchoring the story, Mortensen delivers another exceptionally layered performance as the patient but clearly frustrated John. Henricksen is amazing as the curmudgeonly Willis, lending a coherence to even his most unhinged rants. He's an awful man, but we still root for him. In just one extended scene, Linney brings her own astutely measured approach as Sarah. And the excellent Gudnason is equally careful to balance the young Willis' extremes. These are complex characters in very real situations.
Mortensen's script is a delicately crafted exploration of a father and son who are close but badly strained. Augmenting his striking directorial decisions, the film is expertly edited by Ronald Sanders to add a coherent sense of momentum to the overall narrative. Most impressive is how this never becomes a drama about dementia; it's a strongly moving evocation of the tensions that exist in all families, including the things we are happy to put up with because we love each other. Forgiving and forgetting is something else.
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© 2020 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall
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