Directed by Scott Mann
Written by Jonathan Frank and Scott Mann
Fall is the simplest damned movie it may be possible to make while still having something of a high concept (so to speak), and it's a beautiful thing precisely up to the moment it exceeds the limits of its simplicity, when the anxious sweat kicked in for director and co-writer Scott Mann and his screenplay partner Jonathan Frank, whereupon they unnecessarily complicated things with a stupid gimmicky twist that breaks their film more than any film ought to be getting broken in its final thirty minutes, and it's made all the more obnoxious that it turns out they weren't even being stupidly original. Fall is a survival thriller and, to get to the place it's going, even though it's not a place it should've gone, it openly rips off not one but two other survival thrillers, 2017's 47 Meters Down and 2018's Adrift. Both of them last-half-decade recent, it feels like that should make the naked plagiarism here even worse than it already is; and both deploy the exact same stupid twist in more-or-less the same way and at the same place in their narratives.*
Until that point, Fall might not always be the absolute perfect version of itself, but every single thing about it works, frequently better than you might expect, frequently outrageously well, because Scott Mann the director appears to be much more talented and disciplined than Scott Mann the screenwriter, and the former is up to the impossible challenge the latter has arrayed before him, which is to make a white-knuckle thriller with precisely two characters who also spend nearly the entire movie in a location slightly smaller and with less freedom of movement than that enjoyed by their counterparts in My Dinner With Andre.**
That thriller, then, in its glorious simplicity: 51 weeks ago, on a sheer cliff face somewhere in these United States, we have thrillseeking climbers Becky (Grace Caroline Currey), her husband Dan (Mason Gooding), and her best friend Hunter (Virginia Gadsen; and obviously my second-biggest complaint about the movie is that 1)I don't like a movie directly addressing me by name this often, as it's distracting and I've had the privilege of never needing to deal with it before, and 2)Currey pronounces my name in the most bizarre manner, with stress on both syllables). This movie surely has no room for three characters, so Dan is brusquely dispatched, and in the long interim Becky spirals into alcoholic, suicidal grief. Hunter appears fully willing to let her stew, and the belligerent attempts at intervention from her father (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, a welcome if odd "get" for this two-scene role) have, if anything, backfired.
However, somewhere offscreen he prevails upon his daughter's friend to try to reconnect with Becky, as Hunter explains when she shows up uninvited with a plan that I doubt Becky's dad had any part in dreaming up. Hunter, you see, has these past months entered the old YouTube fray, and for the clicks and the subs and the melancholy and the infinite sadness, conceived of a daring new project, climbing a long-abandoned TV tower, a fictionalized version of the KXTV mast in Walnut Grove, CA, only this one's rusty and rickety and out in the middle of a desert inhabited exclusively by evil vultures. Her object is to drag Becky along with her up to the top of the seventh- or eighth-tallest structure ever built by human hands, whether she actually wants to go or not. Becky's out of condition and out of practice, and it doesn't seem like the brightest idea in any circumstance; but her friend is persuasive in her mania, and she is, after all, suicidal. Yet the plan comes off: the instant they start their ascent all those self-destructive thoughts do indeed fly right out of her head, replaced with the immediate terror of being really high up on a Goddamn pole. So far so good, except after they complete the final leg of their ascent onto the two-meter-square platform atop the tower, a segment of ladder—their only way back down—falls off, and they are trapped: no water, no food, no cellphone service at this altitude to call for help, and always one mistake away from just tumbling 2000 feet down to the ground below.
I probably didn't even need to go into the psychological basis for all this; it's not that it's absent, nor even that it never gets any traction, because despite being (fundamentally) a means to an end, Fall increasingly does find ways to impose upon Becky a satisfactory "emotional arc." Instead, it's simply that it's never the best-handled element of the movie, and when it's foregrounded, it's almost always for the worse—and it's foregrounded more than you'd prefer. It is not, anyway, a Gravity we're dealing with; if things had worked out in their best case, I suppose I wouldn't outright refuse to say we were dealing with a Shallows. (Mann's other touchstone, ironically, appears to be The Descent, and while it would seem like it would be entirely impossible for him to rip off that movie here, he manages, lifting a character dynamic from that film wholesale, something that you will recognize and silently declare unnecessary a good hour before it's clearly resolved itself to our heroines. The saving grace is that it's never a priority even when it does resolve; there's even something low-key likeable about the way the antagonism it raises is allowed to fade into complete inconsequentiality against the more pressing concerns.)
The film does persistently make you wonder if it would have been better top-to-bottom if it had nothing to do with the Internet and (these are related) if it has annoying characters. It does, but maybe even has to—normal people don't climb TV towers for YouTube and the odds that someone like that and all their friends would be vapid and irritating is at least going to approach a coin-flip. It's productive with it, though; attempts to reconnect to the Internet drive most of the film's plot mechanics (getting down at any acceleration slower than 9.8m/s^2 not being a real option otherwise) while prompting a small plot hole that Mann and Frank attempt to fill in with some really rancid bile (honestly, it's almost too savage a swipe at Internet culture that someone with thousands of followers would literally not have even one of them care enough to call the local police after she went offline for more than a day), and the only real misstep, character-wise, is an edgelording post about a dying-not-quite-dead dog at the foot of the tower, fed upon by the vultures, and even then this is less due to the sociopathic black comedy of Hunter's tweeted pun and more because they chase the vultures off but don't have the decency to kill the dog, which seems like the worst outcome for the dog. (Of course, it's also foreshadowing, and in the film's wackiest development that I still approve of, it suggests "motivation" for its "villains.")
The aggravating basic bitchery of it all probably obscures how much empathy the film still winds up with, and I don't actually mean it as a backhanded compliment to say Currey and Gadsen do a good job at being annoying narcissists: Currey finds something humane not solely in Becky's physical suffering (though that's absolutely the main thing), but in the energy of youth cut short, so that only the emptiness of youth remains; and Gadsen, tasked with essaying the film's total asshole, seizes upon every opportunity for flamboyance that this affords her, and damn near walks away with the movie as a result, playing up to her stereotype so fearlessly that Hunter's hostile-feeling influencer pep becomes something legitimately grandiose and more like dark charisma. I mean, I really identified with this character! Less honorably, I suppose, but it even helps that Mann has cheated his way into bringing back the ol' gaze with a scenario that of course can't help but lock in a real "this-movie-is-nothing-but-ropes-and-asses!" aesthetic, and while there's a patent insincerity to Hunter's called-out-in-dialogue decision (which is to say, Mann and Frank's decision on her behalf) to wear a push-up bra for her (that is, their) camera, hell, Gadsen makes this insincerity her own, a whole plank of her character whose very biggest thrill is attention; the biggest "problem" is just movie magic, that Gadsen's stunt double is blatantly more of a climber than she is, with approximately triple the delts.
But that brings us to how Mann built his movie and that's the crucial part, for what he's built is ultimately purest spectacle: it's a movie that exists solely to trap two women on top of a tower half a mile in the sky, and Mann exploits the possibilities of that spectacle beyond any reasonable expectation about how interesting that spectacle should remain after so much of it has gone by without fundamentally changing, in a setting so minimalist it's at turns almost expressionist. (Maybe not even "almost.") Fall runs 107 minutes, making it fairly epic by survival thriller standards and genuinely unusual by the standards of single-location films, which this strictly isn't, though in every essential it is: I cannot speak in exact numbers, but even a conservative estimate would put us at "80 minutes spent on the tower and 60 minutes spent on the top." There's a bluntly effective quality to how that sight's presented to us, anyway, and while I'm not sure there was any way to use this setting besides "bluntly," Mann does so terrifically well, generating fair thrills even during the "safe" phase of the film just out of the sheer woozy vertigo of how far away the ground is. (For Fall is, whatever else, quietly a masterpiece of digital compositing: somehow this movie that cost three million dollars looks more tangibly real than movies literally one hundred times its budget, and even the vultures look good, possibly just real vultures and puppets.)
There are flourishes (a "GoPro camera" follows an object down the side of the tower in an effects shot, for example), including flourishes that don't even necessarily feel like flourishes because they're built-in aspects of the physical space (like the tower's slow heartbeat in the form of the hellish red light of an aviation warning beacon in the night scenes), but we are stuck with a very limited set of visual options, reflecting the extremely limited choices now available to our heroines; and it's a little amazing how much mileage Mann still gets out of these options, leaning hard upon the awesomeness of their achievement and the stark beauty of the vista and somehow getting that to immediately decay into horrifying oppression the very instant the troubles begin. The screenplay isn't designed to support a contemplation of mortality and human insignificance, but the film gets there anyway: there's something perfect about Miguel Olaso's austere photography and the skyscapes that Mann either found or made in his computers; the sun is ugly in its brightness, the air is like gray iron, and each are indifferent or worse to what occurs beneath them. The film can be surprisingly patient with the feelings its imagery conjures, of, alternately, being crushed screaming underneath the perceived weight of sun and sky, and peacefully floating off into the dark oblivion the sky resembles; it's like the prompt for the film was that Lovecraft line, "the sun was blazing down from a sky which seemed to me almost black in its cloudless cruelty," and Mann obliged himself to make most of a motion picture out of that single idea. Maybe we could be talking about Gravity-on-Earth: there's something almost just as rewardingly semiotic about Fall's own native imagery of a ladder that climbs forever but goes nowhere. And for all that, it is at rock bottom still a disaster procedural, clipping along and never getting stale, as Becky and Hunter attempt to push back against the fate embodied in that sky by hatching increasingly-implausible schemes to make their presence known below, usually with absurdity and bitter hilarity as the result.
And then there's that twist I mentioned, which does its level best to ruin everything; it can't, but it comes upsettingly close. It comes off like a pathetic preemptive move against the typical and annoying strain of criticism that movies like this often get, that they don't have "surprises," when movies like this don't really need surprises. (The worst of it is that doing it openly, without a twist, actually would've been surprising. Mann also takes recourse to several dream sequences that don't function very well except as bullshit fakeouts, and, Christ, given where we end up, one of them might as well have been real.) Happily, it ends well anyway—very well, with all the brute atavism upon which the survival film thrives—but there's something keenly disappointing about a film that in every other respect is excellent (or what isn't "excellent" isn't important), but in one key way threatens to collapse altogether. Yet I'd call it good, and for whatever this is worth, the best theatrical experience so far this year.
*In full disclosure: I haven't seen one of those films—I have an abiding fondness for its sequel, you know, which plays no such games—but I realize I should give it some benefit of the doubt. Accordingly, I'll gladly concede that it's marginally possible that it uses this twist well.
**Okay, I haven't seen My Dinner With Andre either, or not in so many years that it doesn't count, but I believe that I recall that "going to the bathroom" was a possibility for its characters, and Wallace Shawn never got wee on him because the wind shifted. Man, when Fall's great, it's great.