A majestic tale of heroism and revenge; a soulful story of heartbreak and friendship; and a heartfelt love letter to the nameless, thankless souls who risk their lives to make cinema truly spectacular, Tarsem Singh's long-awaited follow-up to The Cell manages to be many things at once, while never feeling as if it's overreaching its scope. It's an impressive feat to create a film that is both lavishly grandiose and deeply intimate, and The Fall is not only both of these things, but also unusually accessible for such an ambitious, visionary film. Phrases like "visually spectacular" and words such as "mesmerizing," "beautiful," and "breathtaking" are bound to come up time and again in reviews of The Fall, and for good reason. Singh has crafted a masterfully visual film, and the fact that it was shot entirely on location proves that modern filmmakers don't necessarily need an army of animators to create truly original and awe-inspiring images.
Still, whereas a lesser storyteller may make the fatal misstep of over-complicating things in an attempt to intermingle the fantastic with the mundane, Singh allows his stories to unfold in a straightforward, even simplistic manner until the gradual convergence of reality and fantasy dictate that things get a bit heady. But even then, The Fall is still fun, largely favoring the whimsy of something like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen over the grimness of the similarly structured Pan's Labyrinth -- despite the fact that it deals with some decidedly grown-up issues. In fact, it's a bit inexplicable why the MPAA would stick The Fall with an R rating, given all of the violent studio fare that regularly slides by with a PG-13 these days. Most parents would likely feel comfortable watching this film with their adolescents: there's very little violence (and what there is feels more poetic than brutal or realistic), no profanity, and no nudity. In short, there's nothing in The Fall that goes beyond the boundaries of your typical primetime police procedural (the most disturbing single image in The Fall is even glimpsed in the film's Green Band trailer). Children may actually benefit from talking about the themes presented here with an adult should they become curious about the unusual relationship between the suicidal-stunt man protagonist of the primary narrative and his curious young friend.
The story is simple: little Alexandria is in the hospital with a broken arm when she meets dejected fellow patient Roy Walker -- a movie stuntman who has been injured while attempting to perform a feat to impress the woman he loves. When the object of his affections runs off with the leading man from the film, Roy decides that he would rather commit suicide than spend the rest of his days broken and alone. But since he can't get up from his bed to steal enough morphine for an overdose, he charms the young girl with stories of great adventure so she will steal him the pills he needs to accomplish his grim mission.
The tales Roy weaves are imaginative, sweeping, and grandiose -- the kind of yarns parents imagine spinning for their own children as they tuck them in and send them off to dreamland. The main fantasy story involves five mythical adventurers who have sworn revenge on the villainous Governor Odious. The manner in which Singh weaves together reality and fantasy is captivating, recalling such screen classics as The Wizard of Oz (and, of course, 1981's Yo-Ho-Ho -- the film that inspired The Fall) in the way that the peripheral characters surrounding Roy and Alexandria all have fictional counterparts in Roy's tall tales -- their personalities vividly reflected in the characteristics of their fantastical doppelgangers. Still, as entertaining as the playfully surreal fantasy sequences are, they wouldn't work if the scenes in the hospital between Roy and Alexandria weren't believable. Thankfully for the audience, they are.
Seeing the trailer for The Fall, one might begin to fear it to be a beautiful but pretentious mess that's dazzling to behold but hollow at the center. Seeing the actual film, it's obvious from the opening scenes that this couldn't be further from the truth, because The Fall has genuine heart. The characters in the reality-based scenes are endearing and sympathetic, and those in the fantasy-based scenes are colorful and captivating -- even Christian fundamentalists are likely to warm to gentle Charles Darwin as he cooks up plans with his simian sidekick and searches tirelessly for the most elusive butterfly on the planet. The friendship between young Alexandria and embittered Roy is made believable thanks to wonderful performances from Pushing Daisies star Lee Pace and screen newcomer Catinca Untaru. Untaru in particular is incredibly naturalistic in her first screen appearance. Wide-eyed and full of wonder, yet not so naive that she fails to grasp the gravity of the truth when the fairy tale turns grim, Untaru is the heart of The Fall, and that heart is radiant in its purity. Thankfully she's got a deeply talented co-star to play off of as well, as Pace comes off as something of a mix between Edward Norton and Christian Bale in terms of both looks and screen presence. The remaining members of the cast are also memorable, even if their characters don't have quite as much depth. It's obvious watching The Fall that the film was a labor of love for Singh, and it's a true shame that Roadside Attractions couldn't cook up a decent marketing strategy for the film, because it truly deserves to find a wider audience. Still, that indescribable joy of finding buried treasure in a sea of forgotten films is what makes being a movie lover worthwhile when you're feeling as if there's nothing new under the sun. And even if The Fall is drowned out at the summer box office by films that are bigger, louder, and far less interesting, it's bound to find a more appreciative audience in the years and decades to come. ~ Jason Buchanan, Rovi