Before the FallDirector: F. Javier Gutiérrez
Cast: Víctor Clavijo, Mariana Cordero, Eduard Fernández, Juan Galván, Ana de las Cuevas
Studio: IFC Festival Direct VOD
US date: 2009-07-22 (Limited release)
UK date: 2009-07-22 (General release)
It's a classic "what if" scenario. You live a troubled life in a small Spanish town. Your mother hounds you over your lack of ambition (and your famed brother's abundance of same). You spend each day within the haunting memory of a crime that was committed which has left you fragile and afraid of heights. Your menial job as a handyman only fuels your nightly need to drink and disappear into the background of the world - and then you discover that said sanctuary is about to end. Yes, in three days, a huge meteor is aiming it sites on planet Earth. When it hits, that's it. There's very little you can do except sit back and wait.
For Ale, a young man living an aimless existence with his concerned mother, such an announcement leads to one inevitable conclusion - they both must go out to the country immediately and protect his brother Tomas' children. Apparently, the absentee sibling was instrumental in capturing a notorious child killer several years before and with the sudden breakdown of society, the prison system is in disarray. Ale's mother is convinced that the murderous maniac will come back to town and seek revenge on the family. When no one offers to help them, however, it is up to her and her ineffectual son to stand their ground.
Before the Fall, otherwise known as Tres dias in its native Spain, is a surreal kind of experience. This is an epic thriller with little or no F/X, a tale of Armageddon and its moral consequences wrapped inside a series of suspense saga homages. F. Javier Gutiérrez, making his feature film debut, melds together so many divergent elements - end of the world, family dysfunction, serial murder, child endangerment - that you're convinced the cinematic center won't hold. Indeed, the film plays like a series of references barely capable of coexisting. But thanks to the excellent use of mood and style, along with a couple of memorable turns by the cast, this menagerie of movies past really works.
Imagine Deep Impact combined with Desperate Hours and you get some idea of what's going on here. The first act of the film follows Ale as he tries to maneuver his way through a reality wrought with bad memories and belittlement from his mother. Enamored of Tomas' bravery and resulting local legend, she sees nothing wrong with throwing aside her slacker son for a chance to "rescue" the grandchildren. When she arrives at their country house to find no adults in charge, she immediately believes the worst. A late night run-in with a mysterious noise out in the woods seals her fickle, frightened fate.
Part two takes us into the mindset of Ale, reluctant uncle. Left in charge of what are for the most part four strangers, he does his best abusive dad routine, yelling and screaming only to ask for forgiveness later. Clearly he is angry about having to waste his last few hours on Earth playing nursemaid, but it is this intense interaction with the kids, from cooling raging adolescent hormones to reading a bedtime story that sets us up for part three of the narrative. When an injured stranger shows up with a broad face and a believable story, only Ale is anxious. The kids are just glad to have someone to interact with besides their dictatorial relative. Even as the intruder's antics grow more concerning, the children seem nonplused.
Indeed, one of the most effective things Gutiérrez does is keep Tomas' celebrated deed a secret until right before the ending. By then, the danger is all too real. Indeed, the last ten minutes play like a standard horror film, murderer making the unwilling hero finally come to the fore and defend his turf. Victor Clavijo gives an interesting performance as Ale. He goes from slacker to straggler to superman in a way that's casual, believable, and totally without pretense. Sure, there are parts of his personality that rub us the wrong way (he is infernally lazy and relatively unconcerned about most things), but this is supposed to be part of the psychosis he lives with. Similarly, his mother is so single minded in her pursuit of her seemingly noble aims that we are supposed to forgive her rudeness, her pettiness, and her eventual slip into carelessness.
But it's Eduard Fernández who steals the movie as the stranger. We know he is probably the killer hidden behind a façade of friendliness and fear, but we aren't ready to buy his potential evil. It’s only later, when the true nature of his motives comes to the fore that we are faced with the same dilemma as Ale and the kids. Granted, Gutiérrez does little to endear the little nippers to our side. Only the youngest ones seem tuned into the way their world has changed in the last two days. By the time all threats become real, Before the Fall has wasted a few opportunities. While not enough to commend it, said failures keep the film from being a classic.
Sure, there are other parts of this story that don't quite cooperate with the rest of the narrative. Ale's love of a pregnant girl is unexplained, unexamined, and hastily tossed in toward the end, and budding teen sexuality is never a pleasant topic to undertake, no matter how carefully you circumvent the pubescent passion. With a bigger budget and perhaps an additional F/X shot or two, Before the Fall would feel much larger in scope. But Gutiérrez clearly wanted to tell an epic story in a very small way, similar to how M. Night Shyamalan dealt with an alien invasion in Signs. There is a money shot or two, but perhaps not enough to satisfy those looking for something other than atmosphere and suspense. Go into Before the Fall thinking the typical Day After Tomorrow treatment of the subject and you might walk away disappointed. Tune into how F. Javier Gutiérrez wants to handle the apocalypse however and you'll definitely enjoy the adventure.