To be blunt, The Fall is a failure. It doesn’t achieve the epic grandeur to which co-writer/director Tarsem clearly aspires. Its emotional arc is incoherent, its climax is muddled, and its conclusion is weirdly off-point. And yet few failures are so interesting, so visually hypnotic that one can dismiss the story entirely and treat the movie as a travelogue across a dreamscape. I can’t recommend The Fall, but I can’t regret seeing it either.
The Fall opens in the 1920s in a beautiful Los Angeles hospital alongside an orange grove. Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), a little girl recovering from a badly broken arm, has the run of the place, and she grows fond of the charming but despondent Roy (Lee Pace), a movie stuntman who has lost both the use of his legs and, possibly, the will to live. Roy entertains Alexandria with stories of a band of exiles sworn to defeat a vicious despot, and as he speaks, we plunge into Alexandria’s vivid imagination to watch the action.
“Action” is somewhat misleading, though. The Fall features surprisingly little, and what there is feels stiff and sterile. The movie is at best as a series of breathtaking images; extravagant, brightly colored costumes; and surreal, exotic vistas. Tarsem lingers lovingly on every set piece—and they’re all set pieces. Whirling dervishes in gleaming white robes attend a wedding for no reason other than to dazzle. A mere aside about the fate of an imprisoned woman serves as an excuse to explore a stunning, Escher-like labyrinth we’ll never see again. And nothing so gauche as natural light intrudes on the dramatically shadowed, impossibly vibrant world of Alexandria’s imagination.
Tarsem’s reverent, even fetishistic attention to his spectacular visions makes the story drag, but the real problem is the story itself. This kind of epic, impressionistic tale demands a simple, mythic narrative, something elemental and resonant to lend depth and emotional heft to the pretty pictures. But instead, The Fall is a jumble of digressions, crooked would-be parallels, uncomfortable (if seemingly inadvertent) shades of misogyny, and a weirdly sordid, unepic frame. With a better frame and streamlined storytelling, it might have worked, but instead The Fall is flat and forgettable but for a few particularly stunning visuals.
The movie isn’t without heart—Pace and little Untaru are convincing in their pain—but that pain doesn’t mean anything on a grander scale, and this movie needs a grander scale. Without it, The Fall is a failure as storytelling, yet it is also a reminder that cinema isn’t just a storytelling medium. Maybe this turbid but gorgeous movie is the counterpart to an intellectually intriguing but visually lackluster film full of bad staging and poorly composed reaction shots. It’s still only half a good movie, but what goodness it has is pretty damn great.