The Fall opened last Friday, but did so just as our critic was returning from vacation. It was worth the wait:
Everything that marks The Fall
as superior to the summer's other action spectacles—and that guarantees that it will find only a fraction of their audience—can be summed up in its approach to monkeys. Primates have already played an regrettably prominent role in this blockbuster season: The most notorious of several unpleasantly ludicrous scenes in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
featured Shia LaBeouf swinging from vine to vine in the Peruvian jungle, surrounded by friendly computer-generated capuchins. The Fall
, by contrast, only stars one monkey—his name is Wallace, and he is the confidant and advisor to Charles Darwin (Leo Bill). Yes, that
Charles Darwin: In this movie, not only is the naturalist a descendant of monkeys, he finally admits that his discoveries came from them, too. Such is the genius of The Fall
: Its ideas are all a little mad, and sometimes maddening, but you can't question that they've emerged from a marvelously strange place.
They certainly didn't come from a computer. Perhaps the most important thing to note about Wallace the monkey is that he is a real monkey, and not the product of a legion of CGI-manipulating minions doing George Lucas' bidding. The Fall
's director, Tarsem, is well acquainted with the wonders of technology—in 2000, he helmed The Cell
, which combined a hopelessly insipid story with vast digital landscapes—but he has evidently
converted to the desert of the real, and decided to return to filming real deserts. For the past decade, while directing music videos and sneaker commercials, he shipped his long-suffering actors to locations from Namibia to Bali, perching them atop catwalks, at the edge of wastelands, and in the most dizzying catacombs of castles. His style still shows traces of his slick advertisements, but the exotic locations make The Fall
look like a coffee-table book photographed in a fever dream.
Tarsem has emerged with a movie that must be viewed on the big screen, and one where the most important spoilers are not in the plot but the visuals. (I won't give too many away, though my favorite is a massive burial banner dyed red by the blood of the graves.) It ruins nothing to note that the story is a wild narrative tucked inside a simple one. An injured stuntman (Lee Pace), malingering in a 1920s California hospital, improvises an swashbuckling tale to amuse an audience of one, five-year-old Romanian farm laborer Alexandria (Cantinca Untaru) who can innocently provide him enough morphine to stop his broken heart.
Yes, that sounds like a grim rehash of The Princess Bride
, and that's essentially what The Fall
is, though the cobbled-together story is much more true to a child's brutal imagination, especially if that child had been weaned on a diet of gladiator epics. Alexandria has in fact never seen a movie—and when she admits that to her hero, he replies, “You aren't missing much.” But Tarsem knows better—knows, in fact, that when the movies aren't afraid to be enormous and authentic, they can be magic. It's no accident that The Fall
's central figure is a stuntman, and at the movie's end, as a crowd of orderlies gathers to watch his one big jump, the petty effect is a sweeping gesture, because everyone knows what crazy courage it took to produce it. Tarsem finishes his picture with a montage of stunts from Hollywood's silent comedies—the collapsing houses, the leaps from train cars—and he earns the right to them, because his film is just as dedicated to the beauty of actual bodies in spectacular places. It hearkens back to when the movies sought genuine wonder—when they weren't just monkeying around.
The Fall is rated R. It opened Friday at Fox Tower.