“He was lost in the middle of a vast desert full of orange sand.” So begins the saga of the Black Bandit (Lee Pace), as told to five-year-old Alexandria (Catinca Untaru). “He had only a handful of men, but they didn’t have any water.” The little girl listens, rapt, and not a little thrilled for the distraction provided by her new friend, the ironically named Roy Walker (also Lee Pace). Both are incapacitated at a Los Angeles hospital, paralyzed following an accident on a movie set (he fell from a bridge), and her broken arm propped up on a brace at a right angle from her chest (she fell from an orange tree, picking fruit with her father). It’s 1915, and the opportunities for entertainment as they convalesce are limited.
The story Roy tells reflects both their desires, revealed throughout The Fall in brilliantly colored images. Like Tarsem’s first movie, 2000’s The Cell, this one is at once lush and abstract, visually compelling and strangely off-putting. Roy’s narration alternates between impassioned and tentative, recreating his own recent experience in fantastically eclectic terms, part Wizard of Oz and part Metropolitan Museum of Art, a journey across time and place (shot in some 26 countries). Basic in its moral contours, the story (based on Zako Heskija’s 1981 film Yo Ho Ho) pits the heroic Black Bandit (not a pirate, Roy accedes when Alexandria declares her distaste for such characters, in fact, he’s a man who doesn’t even like water) against the mysterious and brutal Governor Odious (Daniel Caltagirone). But it also cuts back and forth between story and the storyteller, as he uses Alexandria’s growing interest to get what he wants from her, namely, help in procuring morphine to dull his various pains.
For all the film’s sound-bridging and clever cutting from the hospital to the wide-ranging adventure and back again, it doesn’t just tell a story (which is, at times, slow-moving and stilted). At the same time, it wends its way into an interrogation of storytelling per se. This interrogation is framed by the fact that Roy is a movie stuntman, his spectacular accident rendered under the opening credits, in stunning slow-motion black-and-white, men’s faces strained and they labor to create an illusion (out of a train, a bridge, and a couple of horses) and especially, as they try to salvage a disaster. Roy’s grief and rage are redoubled when he learns his fiancée has run off with the Western’s leading man—who happens to look just like Odious—and twisted up in the story he tells Alexandria.
The child’s own investment reshapes the tale yet again, as she anticipates, projects, and imagines the characters as people she knows. Thus the mighty Former Slave, Otta Benga (Marcus Wesley) looks much like the ice delivery man, whose block she licks even as he warns her not to, for fear it will make her sick, the Italian anarchist Luigi (Robin Smith) like one of Roy’s visitors, and the Mystic (Julian Bleach) and the mournful Indian (Jeetu Verma) resemble the men who work alongside her in the orange grove. Each of the men in the adventuring group has his own reason to hate Odious (dead brothers or wives, assorted abuses), and so they band together to seek vengeance. Though most of the travelers can’t understand the Mystic, they are lucky to have among their number one Charles Darwin (Leo Bill), able to translate the Mystic’s gyrations and groans, in between his journal-keeping, sketching, conversing with his sidekick monkey Wallace—and oh yes, pursuing the elusive butterfly, the Americana Exotica.
As Darwin is thus devising his own story of the world, he serves as one of several stand-ins for Roy, as does the insightful but incomprehensible Mystic or the eager-to-blow-things-up Luigi. But Roy’s yarn-spinning is hardly his own. His audience is part of the process, in more ways than one. Exploiting Alexandria’s attentiveness (she steals a bit of the Eucharist from the hospital chapel to feed Roy, at which point he decides she’s able to break rules to please him: “I’m having a hard time sleeping and I can’t remember the story,” he connives, “I need some pills.” When she suggests he ask the nurse, he loses patience and directs her to do what he asks, no questions: “I need the pills to finish the story, understand?”
She doesn’t exactly, but she goes along, making her way into the surgery to steal the medication, and accidentally observing the death of a child on a gurney, his mother grieving as he slips away. When she spots Alexandria, the mother makes a grimace and a growl that send the girl into a guilty and frightened panic, an introduction to death and anger that’s both startling and apt. This instant snaps Alexandria back and forth between the story (and order) she craves and the seeming real world that she can’t fathom. In this she parallels Roy, who rejects his recent experience—to the point that he turns his ex into the beautiful Nurse Evelyn (Justine Waddell), who turns up as a disloyal woman in the Black Bandit’s story as well—and seeks solace in the one he’s making up, where bad guys get theirs.
“What a mystery, this world,” laments the Bandit on discovering his own true love’s betrayal. “One day you love them and the next day you want to kill them a thousand times over.” His effort to punish her and so confirm his own sense of righteousness doesn’t quite work out, but the frustration leads almost directly to his realization—that his partner in storytelling and consuming, the mini-bandit Alexandria, is his most intimate and devoted friend. Much like its narrator, The Fall is not always satisfying, but it is ambitious and eccentric. Most impressively, it works through actual ideas, however odd, maddening, and protracted. When the hospital patients gather in their gowns and bandages and casts to watch a movie, accompanied by a live violinist, they resemble the convicts watching a movie Sullivan’s Travels or children watching the puppet show in The 400 Blows. Even as a movie executive wonders aloud, “So this I the kind of trash we’re going to be making now people jumping off buildings, bridges, horses?”, the pleasure on the children’s faces grants the stunts and antics their own meaning. Viewers are nourished and enlightened by their collective experience, by absorbing and loving stories.