One of the reasons that six-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis was so good in Beasts of the Southern Wild is that most child actors can only do so much. They can play pretend, sure, and that lets them act to a degree, but Wallis went well beyond that degree. If you want to get a better idea of the average six-year-old actor, you might watch The Fall, a film released in 2008 and directed by Tarsem Singh (who is usually billed as simply, “Tarsem”). The Fall is sharply limited by the abilities of one of its leads, six-year-old Catinca Untaru, but in some ways it’s even better because of her limitations.
Lee Pace (Pushing Daisies) plays Roy, a stuntman in 1920s Hollywood who has landed in the hospital after an especially dangerous fall. Untaru is Alexandria, in the hospital for a broken arm, who befriends Roy because she liked to listen to him tell stories. His stories are portrayed through her imagination, in a signature style that Tarsem honed on such music videos as REM’s “Losing My Religion.”
Early on in the epic adventure narrative, Roy describes one of his characters as an “Indian”; since he’s working on a Western picture, he clearly is thinking of a Native American. However, Alexandria is not an American, so in the visualization of her imagination we see a man from India. if you’re not down with that style of whimsy and childlike imagination, you’re likely to find The Fall to be difficult sledding. Similarly, Charles Darwin is a character in the movie, though his fictional version has more in common with Indiana Jones or The Doctor from Doctor Who.
Roy’s story is being told to a child, and Tarsem puts heavy emphasis on the fact that Roy is re-writing it on the fly in order to make Alexandria happy. The problem is that there’s only so much childlike whimsy that an adult can take. The Fall is a bit like the web comic and comic book Axe Cop, which adult artist Ethan Nicolle writes with his 8-year-old brother: adorable at first, but eventually the jarring turns in the story and childlike flights of imagination become tiresome. The film is just under two hours long, but it feels well longer than that, especially as the story-within-the-story approaches its conclusion.
All of the actors who play characters in the fantasy will eventually turn up in Alexandria’s real life, a la The Wizard of Oz, but that movie really isn’t much of an influence here. The Fall might not be the sort of movie that you want to show your six-year-old, in part because it’s more violent than The Wizard of Oz ever was and in part because Roy’s motives behind telling his story are more self-serving than we originally expect. There are two twists in this movie: a small one that is telegraphed from the first moment we meet Roy, then a much bigger one later on. It’s hard to imagine that a child would understand the first twist, and not be terrified by the second one. That’s what the movie is aiming for, but it’s still a little unusual.
The main aspect that I noticed about The Fall – and even now, I’m not sure if it was a good thing or a bad thing – is that during most of its running time Untaru is clearly not acting. Tarsem has said in interviews that she truly believed Pace had broken his back, and that Tarsem allowed her to believe it because it led to better scenes. (Supposedly Tarsem went so far with the ruse that several members of the crew thought Pace was paralyzed as well.) I’m not sure I can approve of tricking a young girl into being an actress, but if there’s any story where it would be appropriate it’s this one, because Roy is tricking Alexandria in the same way.
However, even if I had issues with Untaru’s performance or the unusual story, this picture swept me away with its gorgeous visuals. Tarsem had already shown with his feature debut The Cell that he had an uncanny skill for portraying characters’ imaginations and dreamscapes. This film is even better because it’s basically juggling two imaginary places at once: the one that Roy would like Alexandria to be getting from his tale, and the one that she actually is. Tarsem moves between those spaces with the same effortless fluidity that Ang Lee demonstrated in Life of Pi, and Tarsem had almost no computer effects at his disposal. There are no all-green-screen sets here like in the Star Wars prequels; these are all real locations.
In some ways, The Fall reminded me of a picture like Miami Connection or The Room. It has that same sort of oddball hyper-sincerity, the same air of desperation that many labors of love possess. (It took Tarsem nearly four years to complete the film, in part because he shot scenes in four different countries.) The film’s casual dismissal of its romantic subplot echoes Tommy Wiseau’s misogyny; Untaru’s performance reminds me of many of the non-professional actors in Miami Connection. Of course, The Fall is competently written, acted, and shot; you might say that The Room is a bad movie because it lacks everything that The Fall has.
The Fall ultimately won me over with a coda dedicated to the Hollywood stuntman. Roy is one such stuntman, after all, and a montage of old silent-movie stunts shows the sort of punishment that he and his brethren put themselves through. I’ve long said that there should be an Academy Award dedicated to superlative stuntwork, because no other movie-related profession risks life and limb more often to create movie magic. As Tarsem shows, sometimes the damage to life and limb happens for shots that barely end up in the movie at all … in that case, as it is with Roy and Alexandria, the real-life story behind the made-up story is far more important.
Reviewed by Mark Young