Seraphim Falls Analysis Essay

Tarsem's "The Fall" is a mad folly, an extravagant visual orgy, a free-fall from reality into uncharted realms. Surely it is one of the wildest indulgences a director has ever granted himself. Tarsem, for two decades a leading director of music videos and TV commercials, spent millions of his own money to finance "The Fall," filmed it for four years in 28 countries and 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.

"The Fall" is so audacious that when Variety calls it a "vanity project," you can only admire the man vain enough to make it. It tells a simple story with vast romantic images so stunning I had to check twice, three times, to be sure the film actually claims to have absolutely no computer-generated imagery. None? What about the Labyrinth of Despair, with no exit? The intersecting walls of zig-zagging staircases? The man who emerges from the burning tree? Perhaps the key words are "computer-generated." Perhaps some of the images are created by more traditional kinds of special effects.

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The story framework for the imagery is straightforward. In Los Angeles, circa 1915, a silent movie stunt man has his legs paralyzed while performing a reckless stunt. He convalesces in a half-deserted hospital, its corridors of cream and lime stretching from ward to ward of mostly empty beds, their pillows and sheets awaiting the harvest of World War I. The stunt man is Roy (Lee Pace), pleasant in appearance, confiding in speech, happy to make a new friend of a little girl named Alexandria (Catinca Untaru).

Roy tells a story to Alexandria, involving adventurers who change appearance as quickly as a child's imagination can do its work. We see the process. He tells her of an "Indian" who has a wigwam and a squaw. She does not know these words, and envisions an Indian from a land of palaces, turbans and swamis. The verbal story is input from Roy; the visual story is output from Alexandria.

The story involves Roy (playing the Black Bandit) and his friends: a bomb-throwing Italian anarchist, an escaped African slave, an Indian (from India), and Charles Darwin and his pet monkey, Wallace. Their sworn enemy, Governor Odious, has stranded them on a desert island, but they come ashore (riding swimming elephants, of course) and wage war on him.

Roy draws out the story for a personal motive; after Alexandria brings him some communion wafers from the hospital chapel, he persuades her to steal some morphine tablets from the dispensary. Paralyzed and having lost his great love (she is the Princess in his story), he hopes to kill himself. There is a wonderful scene of the little girl trying to draw him back to life.

Either you are drawn into the world of this movie or you are not. It is preposterous, of course, but I vote with Werner Herzog, who says if we do not find new images, we will perish. Here a line of bowmen shoot hundreds of arrows into the air. So many of them fall into the back of the escaped slave that he falls backward and the weight of his body is supported by them, as on a bed of nails with dozens of foot-long arrows. There is scene of the monkey Wallace chasing a butterfly through impossible architecture.

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At this point in reviews of movies like "The Fall" (not that there are any), I usually announce that I have accomplished my work. I have described what the movie does, how it looks while it is doing it, and what the director has achieved. Well, what has he achieved? "The Fall" is beautiful for its own sake. And there is the sweet charm of the young Romanian actress Catinca Untaru, who may have been dubbed for all I know, but speaks with the innocence of childhood, working her way through tangles of words. She regards with equal wonder the reality she lives in, and the fantasy she pretends to. It is her imagination that creates the images of Roy's story, and they have a purity and power beyond all calculation. Roy is her perfect storyteller, she is his perfect listener, and together they build a world.

Ebert notes: The movie's R rating should not dissuade bright teenagers from this celebration of the imagination.

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You are aware at all times that “Seraphim Falls” has “classic western” genes woven into its DNA. It never loosens up enough to convince you that Carver and Gideon are more than pawns in a high-minded allegory. And when the critical moment arrives for the movie to demonstrate its heart, it opts for pretentious, surreal gimmickry.

“Seraphim Falls” is the first feature film directed by David Von Ancken, who wrote the screenplay with Abby Everett Jaques. Its strongest element is the austere majesty of the cinematography by John Toll (“Braveheart,” “Legends of the Fall,” “The Thin Red Line”), in which the severe beauty of the Western landscape looms over the characters as a silent rebuke.

The opening sequence, in which Gideon is shot in the arm and tumbles down a snowy mountainside into a river that carries him over a waterfall, out of which he miraculously pulls himself to shore, sets the bar high for visceral adventure. Nothing in the rest of the film comes close to matching the impact of Gideon’s carving the bullet from his arm with his hunting knife, then cauterizing the wound while emitting agonizing howls. This scene is enough to give you vicarious hypothermia.

Once Gideon finds temporary shelter with a pioneer family, “Seraphim Falls” softens into a meticulously illustrated historical diorama, punctuated with spasms of violence. He encounters a gang of callow bank robbers, then hides out in a wagon train of Mormon settlers and comes upon a camp of laborers on the transcontinental railroad. Wherever he goes, Carver follows in his footsteps.

The movie “Seraphim Falls” most resembles is Clint Eastwood’s 1976 classic “The Outlaw Josey Wales”; it follows that film’s story closely enough to qualify as a self-conscious homage.

Late in the game, “Seraphim Falls” takes a fatal left turn from the solemn into the ridiculous. On the way to their final confrontation, Gideon and Carver each encounter lone symbolic figures who seem to have been awaiting their arrival, each offering a vaguely Satanic bargain. The first is an Indian trader with a slippery smile. The second, Madame Louise (Anjelica Huston in her grifter mode), is a haughty, witchlike peddler in a horse-drawn carriage, hawking an alcoholic cure-all.

With all due respect to Jim Jarmusch and Alejandro Jodorowsky, tossing such hallucinatory curveballs into the movie this near the end may look like a stroke of avant-garde brilliance, but it’s really an act of cowardice. It’s like being importuned by carnies while on your way to church.

“Seraphim Falls” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has scenes of extreme violence and moderate gore.

SERAPHIM FALLS

Opens today nationwide.

Directed by David Von Ancken; written by Mr. Von Ancken and Abby Everett Jaques; director of photography, John Toll; edited by Conrad Buff; production designer, Michael Hanan; produced by Bruce Davey and David Flynn; released by Samuel Goldwyn Films. Running time: 111 minutes.

WITH: Liam Neeson (Carver), Pierce Brosnan (Gideon), Anjelica Huston (Madame Louise), Michael Wincott (Hayes), Ed Lauter (Parsons), Robert Baker (Pope), John Robinson (Kid), Kevin J. O’Connor (Henry) and Tom Noonan (Minister/Abraham).

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