Fall is an example of a movie doing one central thing very well such that not much else about the movie matters so long as the movie is focused on that one thing. And that thing is: Making the viewer feel like they are half a mile up in the sky on a tiny platform.
If you, like me, are a bit squeamish about heights, this is a shit-your-pants scary movie. I felt so tense watching Fall. I held onto my armrests as if I, myself, might plummet 2000 feet to splattery death. I felt queasy for the large majority of the film. I legitimately might not have made it through the movie if it was shot and screened in 3D.
The premise is one of those simple corkers that you wonder how it can be stretched out to feature length until you see it: Two friends climb up a condemned TV tower for thrills and to record a YouTube video. When they reach the top, the ladder collapses, so they have no way to climb down. They are stuck in the atmosphere, supported by a metal grate delicately balanced in the sky. They must attempt to figure out how to survive and escape.
There is some emotional work set up in the film’s opening 20 minutes, and it is at least functional in ratcheting the sense of dread. The TV tower ascent takes place a year after a rock-climbing mishap killed the husband of one of the girls in a deadly fall. Becky (Grace Caroline Currey), the widow, has spent the intervening 12 months becoming a mopey alcoholic; while her longtime climbing partner, Hunter (Virginia Gardner), has become a danger junkie social media sensation. (Hunter’s YouTube channel, and subsequently the film itself, grabs some attention thanks to Hunter’s push-up bra and short shorts.) It’s just enough character development to give some basic human stakes, and I found both performances effective at making me cheer for the girls, not gravity, a low but important bar in a movie like this. The performances exceed even that, though: Both Gardner and Currey are sympathetic and even-keeled, making their gradual mental break downs more potent.
Once the climbers get stuck in the stratosphere, the film becomes a procedural survival thriller, with the characters systematically and coherently thinking through what they can do to escape. I don’t want to spoil it, because much of the film’s fun is trying to figure out escape strategies at the same time as the characters. Thankfully, the movie never loses track of its fear factor — each and every escape attempt accompanies new, vertiginous (thanks for the vocab lesson, Hunter A.) shots of the great, dizzying expanse that surrounds the climbers.
There is one colossally dumb plot twist in the second half of the movie that nearly ruins the affair. It’s not the substance of the twist that torpedoes the film so much as its gimmicky presentation. In fact, the plot point covered could very well have fit into the natural arc of the story if told in a straightforward manner and sequenced differently; as it is, it destroys the film’s tension by overly emphasizing our characters’ subjectivity, when gritty reality is what makes the movie tick.
Speaking of storytelling mechanisms that diminish the film, I hate Fall’s use of dream sequences. It perpetrates one of my cinematic pet peeves — fantasy segments that depict the exact happenings we are anticipating and/or dreading. You see this most often in rom-coms when the leads kiss in a dream or vision, thereby deflating the sexual tension between the actors, even if it’s just in someone’s imagination. Here, it’s Becky dreaming various worst-case scenarios, thereby reducing their potential horror as we see, e.g., bodies plummet out of sight.
Two more (slightly spoilery) plot nitpicks, since I’m already venting: First, the inevitable fight between Becky and Hunter feels too flimsy and easily-resolved; I expected at least one life-threatening shove or tussle. Second, the characters never consider any sort of sliding or rapelling plan despite having a large length of rope that one of them could use to jury-rig a harness to slide down at least a couple hundred feet.
It wasn’t until I was lying in bed the night after watching Fall that it occurred to me that I didn’t, for even a moment, think about how the movie was made as I watched. I suppose it was most likely a combination of drone footage and green screen digital editing. Regardless how they did it, it’s an extraordinarily immersive film, visually. It seamlessly captures the height and isolation and danger of the setting. Very impressive for such a low budget, reported at only $3 million.
Fall is effective overall, but ultimately a bit too long. At some point, heart-racing tension without breathing room just becomes exhausting. If I were trimming the script, I might have reduced some of the unlucky nastiness — there’s a bit with some car thievery that’s downright cruel. But I can’t deny the numbers — given its SFPS (stomach flips per second), it’s one of the most thrilling movies I’ve seen in months.
- Review Project: 2022: Year in Film