Jumpstarting Grown-Up Wonder: Tarsem Singh's "The Fall"

Joseph SusankaThe Fall, a genre-defying film from the Indian-born director Tarsem Singh, perfectly encapsulates the occasionally awkward marriage between Hollywood's independent filmmakers and their commercial counterparts. Tarsem, probably best known for his visually arresting music video to R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion," has produced a mind-bending, one-of-a-kind work one could accurately describe as both a vanity project and a labor of love. The film, which took more than four years to shoot and features more than twenty-eight extraordinary locations from around the globe, was primarily self-financed. After viewing, one can well understand the reluctance of studios to take on such a unique (and unmarketable) work.

The story: Roy Walker (Lee Pace) is a 1920s-era movie stuntman confined to his hospital bed following a stunt gone wrong. Eager for company, Roy begins to spin a tale of love and adventure worthy of Scheherazade in an effort to befriend another hospital resident, a young foreigner, Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), who recently broke her arm falling from a fruit tree. As he recounts his exciting story, Alexandria provides the imagery to accompany his words, and the two grow closer through their shared vision of fantasy.

Gradually, Roy's ulterior motives come into focus. Distraught more over the loss of his girlfriend to a studio leading man than over his injury, he seeks to exploit Alexandria's new-found trust to procure enough morphine to end his life. As he struggles to manipulate her young devotion while maintaining enough emotional distance to justify his scheme, the line between reality and the world of their shared imaginings grows increasingly blurred. A catastrophic accident, brought about through his selfishness, forces Roy to confront both his own desire for death and the profound way it will affect those around him.

The film's story is a bit underdeveloped, reflecting the struggles ad/video directors often experience when working within the traditional cinematic medium. They nearly always bring with them an incredibly strong visual sense and the carefully-honed ability to convey a large amount of information in a very short period of time. At times, however, these crossover directors seem to be caught up in an endless loop of 30-second concepts. They become held back by their own gift for economic cinematic phrasing, and by their instincts to convey messages via their visual vocabulary.

When The Fall was released in mid-2008, it was precisely this story-weakness that raised the ire of many film critics. But the film's visuals are so overpowering, so extraordinary, and so intoxicating that these shortcomings seem almost inconsequential. The images are breathtaking (sometimes even otherworldly), causing one to doubt the film's claim that no computer-generated imagery was used in its creation. The spectacle alone might well make the film worth watching; in the words of critic Roger Ebert, Tarsem "has made a movie that you might want to see for no other reason than because it exists. There will never be another like it."

But perhaps the criticisms directed at the film's weaknesses are misplaced; perhaps the elevation of visuals and spectacle to such extraordinary heights—even at the expense of story—is part of the very message Tarsem is trying to communicate. In fact, maybe it is the entire point.

In his Hollywood debut, The Cell, Tarsem explored the terrifying mind of a serial killer with the same unusual visual flair he brings to The Fall, but that film felt like little more than an in-depth (and unnecessary) exercise in depravity. Here, he is once again taking us on a journey inside the human mind, only this exploration is both more fruitful and more profound—the simplicity and fantastical nature of Alexandria's imaginings giving us an important insight into an oft-overlooked difference between the vision of a child and that of an adult.