The Fall

Visually astounding -- 3.5 stars

Directed by Tarsem Singh. May 2008, USA. R: 117 min.

(Originally published in buzz magazine on 6/29/2008)

After touring the festival circuit since September 2006, Tarsem Singh’s The Fall has finally entered wide release in the US, arriving at Boardman’s Art Theatre on the afternoon of June 27. Singh’s sophomore feature film effort (his debut came in 2000 with The Cell, although he’s also directed a handful of music videos and a gaggle of commercials) has received mixed reviews. Those who liked The Fall called it “an offbeat fairytale for grownups” (Windy City Times), “a dark fantasy overflowing with mesmerizingly weird images at every turn” (Capital Times), and an “an extravagant visual orgy” (Roger Ebert). If you’ve got the revered Mr. Ebert turned-on so much that he’s making group sex metaphors, I’d say you’ve done your job as a filmmaker. And after taking in this beautiful 117-minute feast for the eyes filmed on-location in 18 different countries, I’m inclined to agree with these positive outlooks.

The Fall begins innocently enough as a frame story. The year is 1915, Hollywood stuntman Roy Walker (Lee Pace) and Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), the daughter of migrant orange pickers, both find themselves in a Los Angeles hospital. A lonely man with a broken heart, Roy is charmed by Alexandria’s presence and bides his time telling her the epic story of a handful of bandits—including an African, an Indian, an explosives expert, a muddy mystic, a masked avenger, and, out of nowhere, Charles Darwin and his pet monkey—with one goal: kill the tyrant named Governor Odious. They span the globe in search of the villain, starting with a speck-of-an-island in the middle of a crystal-clear ocean and trekking through desert mountains, swampy lowlands, lush forests, and a city full of blue-painted huts. Words can’t describe the gorgeous surreality of the images flooding the screen in the fantasy sequences. Salvador Dali would have been proud. Alexandria becomes enraptured with his vivid yarn, and we learn that Roy’s intentions are a whole lot more insidious than just entertaining himself and his young friend with fanciful stories when he forces her to perform little tasks for him that she doesn’t quite understand because, hell, she’s only 5, and she wants to hear the rest of the damn story. Suddenly the border between the frame and the picture melt; we realize that Roy’s story is not some random winding tale but an allegory mirroring his own life. I won’t say anymore about the plot because I know everyone hates spoilers, but you should know that Roy is not a pedophile . . . although there are a few times he gazes at her a little too long and made me feel a little antsy, and there’s really no doubt that she loves him.

The movie is not for everyone, as doing a quick RottenTomatoes search will tell you. Naysaying critics like Susan Granger from SSG Syndicate called it “often incoherent and emotionally inaccessible,” and Chris Hewitt from St. Paul Pioneer Press said paging through a “book of The Fall photographs would be just as compelling as the movie.” Yeah, whatever guys. I understood the plot and identified with the characters just fine, and seeing the film’s images as stills can’t impart the same exhilarating effect as watching them through the lens of sweeping crane shots. There are moments during slow motion takes that the visuals are so damn thick and luscious that you feel like you could bite into it.

Seriously, see this movie if you’re in Champaign, if for no other reason than because Roger Ebert gave it 4 stars and called it “a movie that you might want to see for no other reason than because it exists. There will never be another like it.”