4 stars (out of 5)
Classic storytelling and dazzling contemporary visuals come together in The Fall, a new children's fantasy for adults from imaginative filmmaker Tarsem Singh (The Cell). The movie is being touted as having the support of directors David Fincher (Zodiac) and Spike Jonze (Adaptation.), both of whom got their start in music videos alongside their friend Tarsem (as he is preferably called). It could have just as easily been presented by Guillermo Del Toro, because at this point, the slightly dark fairy tale feels like it might just be this year's Pan's Labyrinth.
Set amidst the dawn of motion pictures in 1920's Los Angeles, The Fall stars Lee Pace (TV's “Pushing Daisies”) as Roy Walker, a movie stunt man who's hospitalized after a fall from a horse in an action sequence cost him the use of his legs. Literally adding insult to injury, Roy is also battling addiction and heartbreak (his sweetheart left him for the the film's lead star). Bed-ridden and depressed, he's got little to live for when he meets Alexandria (debut Romanian talent Catinca Untaru), a little girl who also suffered a fall, resulting in a broken arm. Seeing an opportunity in the impressionable child, Roy begins entrancing her with a fantastical adventure tale, in the hopes that she'll unknowingly assist in his suicide by stealing him morphine pills. He gets all Wizard of Oz as he incorporates hospital staff, fellow patients, Alexandria and even himself into his pirate/vigilante story of five bandits who collectively seek revenge on the aptly named Governor Odious, an evil dictator who wronged each of them in the past. Drawing from his own misfortunes (he makes his ex's new lover the villain) and information Alexandria discloses about her family, Roy's fable quickly becomes an allegory of the pair's lives, which, as the two continue to bond, grow increasingly dependent on one another.
Like the twisted fantasies of Vincent D'Onofrio's serial killer in The Cell, the real awe of The Fall comes from the images born from Roy's mind. They're taken to a much brighter place in this film, but Tarsem has not lost his touch in manipulating locations and colors to create set pieces that look like pristine installation art. He shot the film in 18 countries (including South Africa and India), subsequently making the setting of Roy's story a kaleidoscope of landscapes. There's a butterfly-shaped island surrounded by a sapphire-blue sea, open deserts of white and red sands (reminiscent of those inhabited by Jennifer Lopez in The Cell), palaces of gold and stone that feature towering staircases and a labyrinthine pit, and an approximately 80 ft., blood-red memorial tapestry that echoes the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude.
And Tarsem doesn't stop there. Everything from the costuming to the fight choreography in this picture is heightened to a visually arresting level and shot with a grace that's on par with the work of China's Yimou Zhang (Hero, House of Flying Daggers). One of the bandits, identified as Charles Darwin and played by the same actor who plays the hospital's orderly, is outfitted in a vivid fur coat that looks like it was stolen from Cruella DeVil after PETA members doused her in red paint. The story's princess, played by Justine Waddell (Dracula 2000) who doubles as the duty nurse, wears gowns and headdresses in designs that seem to have leaped from the subconscious (the costumes are by Oscar-winner Eiko Ishioka, who also dressed Lopez in The Cell). No expense is spared in putting the fancifully-suited characters into action, either. In one macabre yet ravishing scene, a warrior is neatly supported by the dozens of arrows by which he was slain. In another, hundreds of Odious' black-clad guards close in on the heroes like ants to a crumb. It's the kind of eye candy that makes one feel sorrowful pity for the blind.
Though it lags in its midsection, and the intermittent whiny-ness of Untaru's acting verges on irritating, the only real problem with the The Fall is its undefined target audience. It may be tailor-made for the buzzing imaginations of youngsters, but its hefty amount of bloodshed makes it very adults-only. With the inclusion of multiple impalements, a character's martyrdom via explosives, and enough plasma that it's even used as paint, Tarsem may have shot himself in the foot. For what will no doubt excite the senses of serious film buffs could also fuel the nightmares of unsuspecting children. Still, regardless of what different viewers take away from it, The Fall is an aesthetic feast told in a fail-safe, old-fashioned style that may as well have pinned the lead characters around a campfire. If it marks the second installment of some Tarsem franchise of exciting, stylistic films that start with “The” and end in “ll”, you can bet I'll be in line for the third.
- R. Kurt Osenlund