Even in a virtual film festival, certain themes crop up, through accidental rhymes of programming or deeper currents in the culture. Movies about fathers — good ones, bad ones, old ones, tough ones — are some of the most notable entries in this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, as though a larger conversation about the patriarchy had percolated down to stories about individual patriarchs. If movies are therapy, a lot of filmmakers seem to be working out their feelings about dad.
That certainly seems true of “Falling,” a film written and directed by Viggo Mortensen — it’s the actor’s feature debut behind the camera — and dedicated to his two brothers, out of respect, he has said, for their “shared past.” Mortensen plays a gay man burdened with an aging father who isn’t just homophobic but filled with loathing for everyone and everything, and the fine, long-lived character actor Lance Henriksen (“Aliens”) takes the character to the wall of a viewer’s active dislike. Have you noticed that when an actor directs a movie, he or she tends to give the cast free rein? That seems to be what has happened here, to the film’s ultimate undoing.
But, who knows, maybe Mortensen’s father (or someone else in his life) was as roaringly unpleasant as Henriksen makes his character, lashing out at the son, the son’s husband (Terry Chen), his two wives in flashback (Hannah Gross and Bracken Burns), his daughter (Laura Linney), and his proctologist (a drolly apt cameo by director David Cronenberg). In which case the scene in which the long-suffering son finally uncorks his anger feels like too little too late. “Falling” feels like a movie made by a man still in thrall to a demanding parent, which, to be fair, is hardly Mortensen’s problem alone.
Much more successful is “The Father,” which hands Anthony Hopkins one of his richest late-career roles. Directed by the French novelist-playwright Florian Zeller and co-written by him with screenwriter Christopher Hampton (“Dangerous Liaisons,” “Atonement”), it’s a memory play from within a failing memory — a drama of encroaching senile dementia told from the point of view of the man suffering from it. Hopkins’s character (also named Anthony) starts the film as a gruff, hale, demanding father figure — not too far removed from Henriksen’s dad in “Falling” — whose reality comes unmoored as different actresses (Olivia Colman, Olivia Williams) play his daughter, his apartment keeps changing, and time seems to slip from tomorrow to yesterday and back again. The film and its central performance are both delicate balancing acts that confront hard truths of aging while slowly turning up the empathy dial. We’re used to Hopkins as a cool calculator, even a killer. We’ve rarely seen him this vulnerable. (“The Father” is scheduled for a December release.)
“Good Joe Bell” seems designed as a similar game-changer — a chance, perhaps, for an actor to atone while playing a character doing the same. When we first see Mark Wahlberg’s Joe Bell, he’s walking across the country to raise awareness of bullying, prompted by the harassment of his gay high-schooler son Jadin (Reid Miller). Joe’s presented as the embodiment of Middle American macho, a guy who loves his football games and can barely stomach his son trying out for the cheerleading squad. What brought him to this journey?
The movie, which has been written by Larry McMurtry (“The Last Picture Show”) and his oft-time co-writer Diana Ossana (“Brokeback Mountain”), is especially sensitive to the layers of guilt, denial, deception, and anger a man like Joe can harbor as he struggles toward articulating a sense of forgiveness in himself. Wahlberg digs through all those layers in a way that suggests a personal archeology; it’s a committed and soul-searching performance. But “Good Joe Bell” throws a few curveballs, one halfway through and one at the very end, that derail the movie, and while those curveballs are based in truth — it’s easy enough to Google the real story — they’re filmed by director Reinaldo Marcus Green (“Monsters and Men”) in a way that make an audience feel manipulated rather than moved. Still, a worthwhile effort and one of the star’s most thoughtful acting jobs.
I don’t know what I was expecting from “Concrete Cowboys,” but not Idris Elba living in a Philadelphia tenement building with a horse. The film, a solid debut for director Ricky Staub, is set among the Black cowboys of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, a century-old organization in the city’s rough Strawberry Mansion neighborhood. Elba plays Harp, an elder in the scene who welcomes in his wayward teenage son (Caleb McLaughlin) and tries to keep him from a life of crime.
Staub cast a number of actual Fletcher Street riders in major supporting roles, and “Concrete Cowboys” is far stronger in its milieu than its script, which traffics in cliches of both “mean streets” melodrama and “boy meets horse” movies. Best are the scenes when you feel the DNA of classic westerns rear up through the urban decay: Elba’s character swaggering like the Duke, an empty-boots-in-the-saddle funeral, a ride out with the herd into the sunset of an abandoned city park. And after a week of watching dads flailing, failing, and fading, it was nice for this festivalgoer to find a father who’s actually good at his job.