Kevin's Review: The Fall - A Perplexing Descent into the Amazing
by Kevin Powers
May 9, 2008
There's a point in Tarsem Singh's second feature film where crippled, thirty-something Roy Walker asks five-year-old Alexandria, "Are you trying to save my soul?" Such a weighty question put to such a naive child makes for a truly confusing, yet beautiful scene - a sequence that speaks as much to the writer-director's talents as to his shortcomings in The Fall. The question is dim and tragic, fitting with the film's portrayal in the trailer. The Fall seemed a brilliantly dark children's tale of adventure, with visuals that would make National Geographic jealous. While the cinematography simply blows you away, much of the story grows into a much less stimulating experience.
Many of the bold storytelling sequences are are peppered with childlike silliness, which is oddly juxtaposed against ghoulish depictions of death and tragedy. Nevertheless, not exclusively dedicating itself to either side gives the film an unexpected, unique flavor -- something like chilis and chocolate -- that is satisfyingly complex. Put together, the story and cinematography is an artful experience that is rare in its quality and, considering this is the director's second feature in nearly a decade, equally rare in quantity.
The story opens in 1915 with a vivid sequence of events done entirely in black and white, paced by an amazing score. It's as if Tarsem is showing off out of the gate. The scene presents the events that lead Roy Walker (Lee Pace) to his bed in the hospital. Performing in a movie, Walker falls from his horse and is left paralyzed. As he languishes in the hospital, Walker decides that he wants to kill himself, but is obviously less than able to do so on his own. So he enlists the help of little Alexandria, drawing her in with "an epic tale of love and revenge." He rations the story in exchange for a favor or two, most importantly stealing him a bottle of morphine.
As Walker paints the fantastic tale of the Black Bandit, the former slave, the gunpowder expert, the Mystic and Charles Darwin and their quest to exact revenge and kill the evil Governor Odious, Tarsem creates a vivid, colorful world like no other. The scenes are nearly exhausting to take in. Trying to process how the director managed to discover a particular landscape and then place the characters there alone for a powerful, solitary scene is tiring, to say the least. As it turns out, it wasn't easy for Tarsem either. The environments of Walker's epic tale took more than 10 years to scout and it depicts more than 18 countries. The appropriate response here and throughout many a scene in the film is simple, jaw-dropping awe.
The visuals are incredible yet not unanticipated given Tarsem's freshman effort, The Cell, back in 2000; that film makes a Marilyn Manson music video look like finger painting. It's surprising, then, that the meticulous environs are nearly overshadowed by the stunning performance of a young Cantinca Untaru, who plays Alexandria, a wobbly five-year-old with a broken, propped arm and missing front teeth. The girl is painfully adorable and delivers such natural, touching scenes when she and Pace sit in bed and simply chat. Her effortless performance, however, stems not from natural talent alone, but craftiness on the part of Tarsem. At the time, Pace was largely an unknown actor. Prompted by some unintended miscommunication, the director let the cast believe that the he was actually a cripple. "Nobody but me, my brother, the costume person and two executive producers knew he could walk… People would have reacted differently if they had known." Such are the wonderful illusions and constructions that Tarsem presents throughout The Fall.
While certain elements border on the profound, a good part of the plot has trouble--namely, Walker's tale to Alexandria, which is the most engrossing element of the film. The story is centered on revenge, love and death, which is not exactly "Thomas the Train." Yet with this grown-up material in place, childlike devices pervade that serve to hollow out the tragedy and weight. The Black Bandit, for instance, has his fingers crossed during a pivotal moment in the story, undoing what would have been an amazing climax. Just as you start to immerse yourself in the dark tones, some stiff line of dialogue or a juvenile piece of humor crops up, which feels like the equivalent of turning on a light. While the real-world story of Walker and Alexandria in the hospital is executed exceedingly well, the fantasy half seems a might inebriated, swaying back and forth between the serious and immature.
The Fall premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival back in 2006 and sadly has sat for some time as a result of mixed initial impressions. That is until directors David Fincher (Fight Club, Zodiac) and Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Where the Wild Things Are) both lent their support for a limited domestic distribution. The Fall is certainly a metered piece of art that will not connect with some. But if you have a curious mind and appreciate the narrative for its creativity, scale and sheer audacity, you just might fall for it as well.