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May 14, 2008 |

By Brian Prisco | Film | May 14, 2008 |

Mother Goose wants you dead. Her nursery rhymes are full of babies falling out of trees, children toppling from wells and splitting their skulls open, bridges collapsing, and general chaos and horror befalling the young. Like the gothic sketches accompanying Through the Looking Glass, The Fall weaves its terrifying narrative with bizarre imagery and lush fantastic landscapes. But ultimately, like an opium-addled house of cards, the entire project falls apart under the weight of its own dreary narrative and mind-numbing “artistry.” A lot of people will be lured in by supposed similarity to Pan’s Labyrinth or The City of Lost Children. However, this Pied Piper’s song quickly blats sour notes. You’ll find yourself longing for substance rather than arbitrary visual treats, like a disappointed diabetic visiting Hansel and Gretel’s witch.

The Fall tells the story of Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), a precocious young girl wandering around a the grounds of a hospital in 1920s Los Angeles. She has been laid up with a broken arm after falling from an orange grove tree where she’d been picking fruit with her family. While exploring the hospital, she comes upon Roy (Lee Pace), an injured stuntman who appears to have paralyzed himself while trying to impress his lady love during a movie shoot. Roy enchants Alexandria with an epic story of adventure and spectacle, and we are catapulted through her vivid imagination into a world of swimming elephants and multi-cultural warriors swathed in a crayon-rainbow of garbs. Just as we’re settling in for a wild, insanely crafted adventure, we’re yanked from the story and thrust back into the drab real world. That’s how we spend the next two hours, bounding from painted miracle to morbid doldrums like they reshot the video for A-Ha’s “Take on Me” with The Smiths.

There are two combating narratives fighting for attention in this, and both are filtered through the eyes of a 5-year-old girl. In the hands of a more deft filmmaker or screenwriter, this could have been powerfully effective; here, it’s just uneven, confusing, and erratic. Neither story is particularly well-told or captivating, but you wish for more of the fantasy because at least it’s pretty to look at. And it is. The world of Roy’s story is cinematically glorious, with orange deserts and enormous blue skies. A character explodes from a flaming tree, his long dreadlocks knotted like tree branches. An enormous white sail absorbs the blood of a fallen comrade and we see it seep its way skyward, with a verdant hillside and rippling sky behind it. It’s fucking gorgeous. It’s just a damn shame that we’re subjected to such a sloppy story placed in it.

At least it’s an escape from the tragically heavy-handed narrative that takes place in the hospital. You see, Roy is suicidal, though it’s never made explicitly clear whether it’s from his true love shacking up with the star of the film or from the fact he might never get out of bed. Whatever the case, Roy has decided to off himself. He uses his story of bandits and revenge to trick the immigrant child into stealing a bottle of morphine for him so he can kill himself. Not once, but twice. The real-world narrative spirals down a black, slimed sewer drain into more murk and misery, culminating in Alexandria’s suffering a massive head injury that plunges her into a nightmare puppetry sequence straight out of a Tool video for a funeral dirge. Then it gets even more horribly dark and depressing.

I have nothing against dark children’s stories. In fact, some of my favorite films are bleak fairy tales like The Dark Crystal or The Last Unicorn. But this movie is like The Princess Bride if Peter Falk were suffering from dementia, and midway though the telling he tries to bludgeon Fred Savage to a bloody Giants-pajama-wearing pulp.

The Fall is directed by Tarsem Singh, going simply by Tarsem, apparently hoping that withholding his last name will protect him from people who remember The Cell, another visually arresting crapfest. Awesomeness abounds, but more often than not it seems like things are weird for weirdness’ sake. Much like The Wizard of Oz, the characters for the fantasy are culled from people in the hospital, but inexplicably so. Nothing is ever given explanation or depth, so they exist as cartoons. The Indian, though described as a Sioux, becomes transformed into a Pakistani. This could be expressed by the young girl’s misunderstanding, but there’s also an Italian explosives expert who for some reason or another is dressed in a Chinese robe and hat. Even more bizarre, one of the heroes is Charles Darwin, only he dresses like one of the droogies from A Clockwork Orange, except for a shag red peacock coat and a pet monkey named Wallace. There’s no viable reason for Darwin to be here. At all.

Much of the movie consists of strange excess and unexplained phenomena. It’s weirdly violent and unsure what tone to take with the brutality: A chandelier is made from the skinned corpses of the bandit-hero’s brother and his companions. One of the characters is riddled with arrows and comes to rest with a smile on his face on his back, resting on the protruding arrows. A character chokes up blood in a pool, drowning and struggling as the young girl weeps hysterically. The tone throughout the movie is problematic, dancing erratically from playful to morose.

Which is a shame, because the acting is terrific for the most part. The young Untaru is adorable, and she handles most of the emotions with charm and pathos. Her dialogue is strange; since her character is both extremely young and supposedly foreign, she constantly mumbles and speaks over the other characters, often saying, “What? What?” as if she were auditioning for a Lil’ Jon video. But poor Pace needs a new agent. He manages to rise above the material in all of his projects, even being one of the bright spots in the odious Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. Such is the case here. He’s so delightful as Roy, even when he’s a miserable child-torturing mope, you almost feel sorry he has to actually speak the awful dialogue from a script by Tarsem, Dan Gilroy, and Nico Soultanakis.

I can easily see The Fall as being a favorite for some folks. They’ll get swept under by the dazzling imagery and gasp at the brief bubbles of humor on this otherwise crushingly morbid tale. But the cinematographic wizardry and lush backdrops do little to distract from the boring narrative. It ultimately disappoints because you can see what this movie could have been but cannot forgive it for what it actually is. Which is crap. Tarsem needs to stick to the music videos and leave the storytelling to the Gilliams and Burtons.

Brian Prisco is a warrior-poet from the valley of North Hollywood, by way of Philadelphia. He wastes most of his life in desk jobs, biding his time until he finally becomes an actor, a writer, or cannon fodder in the inevitable zombie invasion. He can be found shaking his fist and angrily shouting at clouds on his blog, The Gospel According to Prisco.

Boredom's Not a Burden Anyone Should Bear

The Fall / Brian Prisco

Film | May 14, 2008 |

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