THE FALL is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. But for me, this is the brew I need. I drank the whole pot and loved every single sip, as this is truly a one of a kind effort. Directed by Tarsem (THE CELL) from a script he co-wrote with Dan Gilroy (NIGHTCRAWLER) and Nico Soultanakis, THE FALL is one of the most personal and private films that I’ve ever encountered, a constant feast for the eyes, ears, and brain. Terrence Malick and Werner Herzog would blush if they saw it. It’s also an uncompromising, wholly masterful vision that was easily my favorite film in 2008, and over the years, I’ve repeatedly returned to it in an effort to unlock all of its secrets and filmic virtues. There is imagery in THE FALL that I will never forget, and for me, that’s what I look for in movies – a visual style that’s going to take me somewhere new and fantastic in a way that I’ve not experienced. This is a haunting movie, a work that mixes surrealist fantasy with a simple yet dark story, and THE FALL has captivated me in a way that few other releases have over the last decade. From the utterly engrossing opening in luscious, smoky, black and white, all the way to the emotionally draining and satisfying ending, THE FALL sweeps you out of your seat with lush, exotic, and unforgettable visions while spinning a touching yet complicated narrative that adds up to something completely spectacular and original.
Shot over the course of four years in over 20 countries and fully financed by Tarsem out of his own pocket, THE FALL is the story of two lost souls who connect while convalescing in a Los Angeles hospital, sometime in the early 1920’s. Roy Walker (a tortured and excellent Lee Pace) is a Hollywood stuntman who has become paralyzed from the waist down after falling off his horse during the filming of a Western. Confined to his bed in the hospital, he is a man suffering not only from his terrible injury, but from a broken heart; it seems that his actress-girlfriend has run off with the film’s leading man. Along comes the impossibly precocious Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), a Romanian immigrant no older than 10 years old, who is nursing a broken arm at the hospital. Their paths cross and an instant bond is created. Roy begins to tell Alexandria a fantastical story about five adventurers (an Indian, an Italian explosives expert, a masked bandit, an African slave, and Charles Darwin) who are all caught in a battle with the evil Governor Odious. Alexandria patiently listens to Roy tell his story, and the audience gets to see how she envisions what she’s being told. Because of her wild imagination, the language barrier between her and Roy, and her childlike view of the world, Roy’s story shape-shifts in Alexandria’s head to the point of cerebral exhaustion. In a nod to THE WIZARD OF OZ, Alexandria imagines the five adventurers as versions of the people who surround her in the hospital (a doctor, a nurse, Roy himself, etc.). What she doesn’t realize is that Roy is really conning her; he starts stopping the story at integral moments (much to her cute annoyance) so that she can fetch him morphine pills from the hospital’s dispensary, in an attempt to slowly commit suicide. That’s as much of a plot synopsis that I will offer.
What I will report is that THE FALL is one of the most gorgeously mounted productions I can think of. Tarsem, a world-renowned commercials and music-video director who somehow has yet to truly explode on a massive stage, was operating on another level while making this film, working on an all-together different playing field with this film. His utter dominance of the visual language is so distinct and so intricately detailed that I’ve found it difficult to think of anyone else who comes close to this level of artistry. There are shades of BARAKA and PAN’S LABRYINTH and the aforementioned WIZARD OF OZ that can be felt throughout THE FALL, but in the end, Tarsem has created something completely original. This is a boldly imaginative movie that smartly pays homage to other works that have come before it, and yet sets out to chart its own specific course in the annals of cinematic fantasy. And still, for some reason, with as much talent as Tarsem clearly has, other than THE CELL, which benefitted from a terrific screenplay from Mark Protosevich, he’s yet to fully find his footing as an established filmmaker. Immortals was a great looking CGI/green screen movie that felt like 300’s cousin, and while I haven’t seen Mirror, Mirror, it felt like a decidedly minor effort based on the trailers. Self/Less came and went.
And to think, a project such as this one, could have easily been a complete failure. Without a strong story or well developed characters, the film would have become two hours of startlingly beautiful imagery in search of a meaningful narrative or dramatic purpose. The friendship that develops between Roy and Alexandria makes the fantasy sequences all the more involving because the closer they get in spirit, the more intense the fantastical elements become. Pace brings you into Roy’s situation and you feel his pain at times. His performance is always interesting and quite layered once you factor in the various levels that the story is pivoting on. Untaru is a revelation in her big screen debut, and even if she never makes another feature film again (she’s appeared in a few short films), she’ll always have this special piece of filmic history. Her line readings, at times alternating between supremely confident and slightly awkward, produce a nervous quality to the film that melds perfectly with the avant-garde nature of the visual scheme. Alexandria, whether due to her naiveté or youth, doesn’t understand everything that’s going on around her, which allows Tarsem and his writers the freedom to run wild with her interpretation of the story. Certain moments, including a swimming elephant, a chanting and dancing tribe of natives, a city painted in blue, a man resting on a bed of arrows like a bed of nails, and a creature separating itself from a flaming tree, were beyond words in their level of visual sophistication. Working with the brilliant cinematographer Colin Watkinson, THE FALL has one of the most unique and robust visual palettes that I’ve ever come across. The breathtaking opening sequence, showcasing Roy’s tragic accident in creamy black-and-white and super-slow-motion sets the tone right away; THE FALL is akin to a living, breathing painting.
THE FALL will be a polarizing film for most audiences, and to be honest, as with any great piece of moving image art, more than one viewing is likely required, because on first exposure, it’s incredibly easy to get lost in the visuals as the film is constantly overwhelming. It’s experimental, it’s artsy, it’s innocently pretentious in a great way, and above all, it’s totally exhilarating. To watch a filmmaker shoot for the moon the way Tarsem did here seems almost lunatic in the level of overall ambition. This is not the sort of film that could ever get made through the traditional studio system and it’s not the sort of film that, sadly, will win over sold-out crowds and every critic who checks it out (it’s a 50/50 split at Rottentomatoes, with some truly moronic comments made by some sneering “critics”). However, I truly feel that this is a work of art, and a beyond personal accomplishment that’s worth seeking out if you care at all about the power of filmmaking and storytelling. It’s a visual tour de force that has few equals and one of the rare instances where a filmmaker literally put their own money where their mouth was, conjuring up results that are nothing short of cinematically intoxicating.