THE FALL (****) is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. It was mine, however. I drank the whole pot and loved every single sip. There are movies and then there are films. There is junk-cinema and there is art-cinema. There is pure escapism and there are documentaries. Directed by Tarsem (THE CELL) from a script he co-wrote with Dan Gilroy and Nico Soultanakis, THE FALL is one of the most personal and private films that I’ve ever encountered on the big screen. Terry Malick and Werner Herzog would blush if they saw it. It’s also an uncompromising masterwork that is the best film I’ve seen so far this year. There is imagery in THE FALL that I will never forget. For the past week, the film has been haunting me, in a good way, and if I had the time and money I’d go back and see it again. And again. And again. I think you’re getting the point. Mixing surrealist fantasy with a simple yet dark story, THE FALL captivated me in a way that no other release has this year. From the utterly engrossing opening all the way to the emotionally draining yet satisfying ending, THE FALL sweeps you out of your seat with lush, exotic, and unforgettable imagery while spinning a touching yet complicated narrative that adds up to something completely spectacular. Tarsem has only made two feature films at this point; I hope he becomes more prolific in the coming years.
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 (the excellent Lee Pace from PUSHING DAISIES) is a Hollywood stuntman who’s been paralyzed after falling off his horse during the filming of a western action flick. Confined to his bed in the hospital, he’s a man who’s 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 (she fell out of a tree while picking oranges on a farm with her family). 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 child-like 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 chagrin) so that she can fetch him morphine pills, in an attempt to commit suicide. That’s as much of a plot synopsis that I will offer.
What I will concede is that THE FALL is one of the most gorgeously mounted productions I’ve ever seen. Tarsem, a world-renowned commercials and music-video director, is operating on another level, an all together different playing field in this film. His mastery of the visual image is so sharp 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 flavors of the film BARAKA and PAN’S LABRYINTH and the aforementioned WIZARD OF OZ, but Tarsem has created something truly original with THE FALL. And it might have been a complete failure. Without a strong story and well developed characters, the film would have become two hours of startlingly beautiful imagery in search of a meaningful narrative. 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 fantasy 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. 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 she’s being told. 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 cinematographer Colin Watkinson, Tarsem has given THE FALL one of the most unique and distinctive 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; you’re either gonna love it or hate it. There will probably be no middle ground. It’s experimental, it’s artsy, it’s a tad pretentious, and above all, it’s totally exhilarating. To watch a filmmaker shoot for the moon the way Tarsem has here is like watching someone preform a high-wire act; his ambition is almost lunatic. 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, it’s a work of art, and a one-of-a-kind accomplishment that’s worth seeking out if you care at all about the power of filmmaking and storytelling. This is the best film of 2008 that I’ve seen thus far, and a visual tour de force that has few equals. Tarsem put his money where his mouth is, and the results are nothing less than brilliant.