Viggo Mortensen first met Lance Henriksen when he shot him dead. Mortensen, the Lord of the Rings star and three-time best actor Oscar nominee, was facing off the older actor – a veteran of more than 200 movies including Aliens and The Terminator – in the 2008 western Appaloosa.
“There were so many bullets flying around; I don’t think any one person can take the credit for killing me,” smiles Henriksen, his voice sandpapery but sweet. As we wait for Mortensen to join our video call, he says he is tip-top today. “I turned 80. But I don’t feel no 80.” Then he switches the subject abruptly. “I can’t tell you how much Falling has changed my life,” he says.
Falling, Mortensen’s debut as a writer-director, provides Henriksen with the meatiest role of his career. He plays Willis, an elderly farmer whose dementia does not bring out the worst in him so much as takes his lifelong rage to a new, unmanageable level. The test for Willis’s son, John (Mortensen), who has a husband and a young daughter, is how to extend compassion to a man who has rarely expressed any of his own.
Henriksen’s distinctive features have haunted cinema screens for almost half a century – that drawn face, those goggle eyes in their deep-scooped sockets, the high forehead and prim lips. His first paid gig was as a prison yard extra on The American, a 1960 TV special with Lee Marvin. “I was in jail myself at the time for vagrancy. They paid me $5 and I told the guard: ‘I’m not a vagrant any more!’” He even asked Marvin to spring him from the slammer. “He looked at me, like: ‘Hold that thought,’ and walked off. Hahaha!”
He has led an astonishing life. As a young waiter in an oversized tuxedo, he once served John F Kennedy; he became friends with François Truffaut when they appeared together in Close Encounters of the Third Kind; as well as Steven Spielberg, he has worked with titans such as Sidney Lumet, Kathryn Bigelow, James Cameron and John Woo. But he has never had a part like Willis. “I was wondering if I was good enough to pull this off. I didn’t wanna get caught acting.”
At that moment, Mortensen pops up on screen from his home in Madrid – “Hey, there he is!” Henriksen calls out cheerily – and digs into explaining why he picked this leading man. “Lance’s presence can be quite intimidating,” says the 62-year-old in his serene, soothing tones. “If he’s not smiling, it’s like you’re looking at a wolf who might gobble you up. But he’s also really honest. It doesn’t matter if it’s one scene in some out-there genre film, he’s always believable.”
Henriksen chips in: “I started out a shitty actor,” he says. I tell him that I beg to differ, brandishing as evidence my Blu-ray copy of Dog Day Afternoon, Lumet’s sweaty 1975 masterpiece about a botched bank robbery, in which he has a vital role in apprehending the hapless Sonny (Al Pacino) and Sal (John Cazale). “That was my first movie!” he says delightedly, as though greeting an old friend. Indeed. But why did he have to go and kill poor Sal? “Ah, he had it coming,” he says, laughing.
He says a lot of mean things in Falling. Asked if any of it gave him pause, he admits he felt rotten tearing strips off his co-star Terry Chen, who plays his son-in-law. Mortensen also recalls him repeatedly failing to make eye contact with Laura Linney, who stars as his daughter, during a profane dialogue scene. “Remember that, Lance? You looked like an embarrassed eight-year-old. Laura told you: ‘I’m a tough broad, I can take it.’”
Then there was the day that David Cronenberg – who directed Mortensen in A History of Violence, Eastern Promises and A Dangerous Method – stopped by for a cameo as Willis’s colorectal surgeon. “I didn’t realise who he was,” says Henriksen. “What did you think of him as a proctologist?” Mortensen asks. “He really liked his job,” he replies. “Too much, maybe!” Months later, the penny dropped. “I told Viggo: ‘I saw you in an interview with the proctologist!’ I wish I’d known it was Cronenberg; I could’ve brown-nosed the shit out of him.” The pair giggle happily together.
Although Mortensen’s late father had dementia, the film is expressly not a portrait of him. “He was a much better communicator than Willis is and we had a better relationship. But there are enough traces of him in what Lance plays – fragments of conversations we had, some difficult moments – that it was constantly moving for me to see.”
He was determined to be honest about the illness. “Movies which deal with this subject generally show someone who’s confused. My experience is that this isn’t the case – it’s the ones observing the person who get confused. Memory is subjective anyway. Why is his present any less valid than yours? If your father is saying he had breakfast with someone you know has been dead for 30 years, don’t say: ‘He died years ago,’ say: ‘What did you guys eat?’ On some ethical level, you think: ‘I’m lying, I’m bullshitting.’ But you’re giving something that makes them feel good. It’s not about you.”
This reminds Henriksen of the time he worked in a retirement home, where he took it upon himself to write to residents who never got any post. “I’d put a letter in their box to cheer them up. You should’ve seen the difference! They were bopping around the lobby. It was good for an actor to do.”
“It was also a generous thing to do,” Mortensen says. Henriksen mulls this over. “The greatest choices in my life were things that made other people happy,” he says.
I steer him back to his earlier comment: what did he mean when he said he did not want to “get caught acting” while playing Willis? “I wanted to live it,” he says. “I knew I’d have to go back with a clear-eyed look at how my parents behaved towards me. I had a very rough childhood. I got bludgeoned a lot. Different people, relatives. I remember every single face from my childhood. My alcoholic uncles, whoever. I’m not having a pity party here; I’m not Quasimodo. That’s just how it was.”
Mortensen learned about Henriksen’s childhood during the years when they were waiting for the film’s financing to come together. “We worked on the script at his house and he would tell me these stories that were like the severest parts from Dickens.” One time, Henriksen’s mother, an alcoholic shacked up with her fourth or fifth husband, had pressed his birth certificate into his hand and said: “You’ll always know who you are.” Then she shoved him out into the night; he was no older than seven at the time. “Lance, I told you it was incredible that you were so forgiving. And you said: ‘It took me a long time to get there. I’d already been through that shit once, so why would I wanna be stuck in it?’”
Henriksen takes up the story. “When I was 12, I left home. I mean, really left. I quit them – I’d had enough –and I started working at becoming a man. I rode freight trains, hitchhiked; I even worked in a mine operating a drill. At 12! Nobody gave a shit. But the fire from all the isolation and neglect and hunger never really left me.” Acting provided him with a belated sense of solace and family. “I found all these people who were struggling for some form of authenticity, romance, adventure. All that good shit healed me in so many ways.” Taking on Falling meant reopening old wounds. “I wanted to do it. But I knew it would be tough sledding some days.”
Mortensen has heard all this before, but he listens intently. There is no indication that the two men are close to exhausting their fascination with one another; our allotted 40 minutes has stretched to nearly twice that length and they are going to Skype together once the interview is over. (“I gotta go out first or the dog is gonna piss on the floor!” says Mortensen.) Nor has the director tired of praising his actor. “You gave so much more than I could’ve hoped, Lance.” Henriksen looks visibly moved. “We did it,” he gasps. “We won the fucking Superbowl!”
Falling is released in the UK on 4 December
Quo Vadis, Aida? review – shattering return to Srebrenica | Film
There’s a real tragic power in this almost unbearably brutal and shocking movie from writer-director Jasmila Žbanić about the Srebrenica massacre in 1995 during the Bosnian war, in which more than 8,000 unarmed Bosnian Muslims sheltering in a so-called UN “safe area” were slaughtered: the biggest civilian atrocity in Europe since the second world war. Dutch UN peacekeeping soldiers in powder-blue helmets had been unable to stop Bosnian Serb forces swaggering into their compound – undisciplined, jacked up with the brutal thrill of conquest, paranoid about combatants supposedly hiding among the civilian refugees and simply seething with ethnic hate.
Jasna Đuričić plays Aida, a schoolteacher-turned-translator who is employed by the UN to interpret in discussions between Bosnian Muslim leaders and UN officials, as Srebrenica falls to the Serb forces. Her husband Nihad (Izudin Bajrović) is a headteacher, and they sense that their military-age sons Hamdija (Boris Ler) and Sejo (Dino Bajrović) are now in great danger of reprisals from the victorious Serb army. As they huddle in the disused battery factory under the UN’s supposed protection with thousands of other terrified souls, and thousands more outside, with chaos, squalor and panic growing, Aida scurries around frantically trying to get information. She realises that the pathetic UN commander Karremans (Johan Heldenbergh) can do nothing in the face of the murderous bullies led by the notorious war criminal Ratko Mladić, played with horribly plausible conceit and disdain by Boris Isaković, smoothly and ambiguously announcing his determination not to hurt “innocent” people and handing out Toblerone bars to the trembling children.
As an interpreter, Aida is effectively the drama’s liaison or intermediary between the different constituencies: with her licence to roam, she can take the audience to the Serbs, to the Dutch UN officers and to the civilians. The camera is often running behind Aida as she desperately goes around, demanding that the UN do something or at least protect her family. Đuričić’s face is agonisingly etched with her own horror and disbelief; she seems to age 20 years in the course of the drama.
There is an extraordinary moment when, amid all the fear and boredom and cramped conditions, she sees two young people kissing and she starts laughing – overwhelmed, perhaps, at this evidence that life and humanity goes on, or perhaps at the glorious but vulnerable innocence of youth. Maybe the kissing couple think that everything will be all right, and a flashback gives us Aida’s own youth, taking part in a boozy “beauty contest” in a bar, in the days when Serbs, Muslims and Croats were still friends and neighbours. There are wrenching moments when Aida recognises former pupils of hers now in Serb uniform, pushing her around at gunpoint.
A previous film of Žbanić’s, Esma’s Secret: Grbavica, with a similar Bosnian theme, won the Golden Bear in Berlin in 2006, though I was less convinced. But her latest film seemed to me an icily brilliant and overwhelmingly convincing attempt to tackle, head-on, this shameful atrocity: shameful for the UN, the European Union and all those western world leaders who had been reluctant to intervene – perhaps because the totemic word “Sarajevo” made them fear a new world war. Perhaps also in their hearts they thought military intervention was all very well in the Middle East but not in Europe.
At any rate, the Srebrenica massacre arguably galvanised Nato forces against Mladic. As for the title, it’s taken from the apocryphal Christian tradition that Peter met the risen Christ outside Rome and asked him: “Quo vadis?” – “Whither goest thou?” – and the answer was: to Rome, to be crucified again. Aida herself is crucified twice, once during the massacre and again afterwards, as she begins to recognise certain people in the community she has rejoined. After 25 years, the time has come to look again at the horror of Srebrenica, and Zbanic has done this with clear-eyed compassion and candour.
• Quo Vadis, Aida? is available on Curzon Home Cinema from 22 January.
Timothée Chalamet And Tom Holland Are Reportedly In The Running To Play Willy Wonka In A "Chocolate Factory" Prequel
The Rental review – predictable cabin-in-the-woods scares | Horror films
Initial high hopes are dashed at the third-act stage of this disappointing cabin-in-the-woods horror-mystery in which actor Dave Franco (brother of James) makes his directorial debut, co-writing with mumblecore film-maker Joe Swanberg.
Two couples rent an ocean-front beach house for a luxury weekend getaway: tech entrepreneur Charlie (Dan Stevens) and his partner Michelle (Alison Brie), with Charlie’s brother, Josh (Jeremy Allen White), and Josh’s partner, Mina (Sheila Vand), who is also the co-owner of Charlie’s tech startup. When the foursome arrives, they are instantly nettled by the guy showing them around the property: Taylor (Toby Huss) makes casually racist comments about Mina. And it turns out their ultra-fancy rental has some very strange things about it. Are they being spied on?
The dynamic between the four characters is interesting at first, in part because there is already some difficult sexual and social tension between them; it isn’t just the weirdo place they find themselves in. But when the gory/scary stuff really starts happening, the film suddenly loses its dramatic charge. The focus is muddled and uncertain. When tough guy Josh (who we learn has already done jail time for violence) starts taking action against someone who might not actually have done anything wrong, the film starts becoming more of a suspense thriller in which our four hapless heroes have to cover up their own misdeeds. It almost seems as if they themselves are the bad guys, which undermines the potency and the dramatic point of the threat that emerges from the darkness.
It’s pretty basic boilerplate, scary-movie stuff, with tropes and tricks that have already been extensively satirised elsewhere.
• The Rental is available on Amazon Prime Video from 22 January.
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