Two young women climb a 2,000-foot tower... only to find they can’t get down
In the context of Rebekah McKendry’s loopy but watchable new Glorious, I commented on the way low-budget horror and thrillers so often work from the premise of isolation: one or a few people, a threat, nowhere to run, and no option but to confront it. A premise in some ways similar, but in other ways the opposite, drives what might be called ‘escapology films’—where the threat can’t be defeated (and is often inanimate; a situation rather than a conscious opponent, or the objective isn’t to directly overcome it but simply get away).
One of the best of these is Jaume Collet-Sera’s The Shallows (2016), which— a few minor misjudgements apart—-succeeds so well by paring its story elements back to the absolute minimum: a woman, a shark, a rock, and the sea. But there are plenty of others, notable among them Buried (2010) and Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours (2010), as well as a host of less audacious but serviceable tales like 47 Meters Down (2017).
The most immediately striking thing about Scott Mann’s Fall is the way it takes the idea to a cheeky extreme; simultaneously exposing and confining its female protagonists on a tiny platform (barely big enough for the two of them) at the top of a 2,000-foot tower in the middle of a desert, then disposing of the ladder they climbed up and leaving them to find a way down. It’s almost as if Mann is challenging other filmmakers to come up with an even less promising situation.
But his film falls down on two levels. Firstly, in a movie of this kind the narrative mechanics are stripped bare for all to see. Indeed, the mechanics pretty much are the movie, and any implausibility (for example a deus ex machina or failure to grasp an obvious opportunity) is obvious to the viewer. This undermines Fall in more than one way, more of which later. Secondly, though the characters don’t necessarily have to be intensely sympathetic, it helps if we can root for them… but here, it’s difficult.
The movie begins with Becky (Grace Caroline Currey), Hunter (Virginia Gardner), and Becky’s husband Dan (Mason Gooding) free-climbing on a vast cliff face. It’s a well-presented sequence—like all the actual climbing in Fall—which unfortunately is here only so that Dan, seemingly far too nice to live, can plummet to his death. Now fast-forward a year and the bereaved Becky is drowning in drink and depression… but Hunter, a relentlessly bubbly social-media influencer whose videos of extreme climbing have attracted a large following, insists that Becky get back (metaphorically) on the horse she fell from and join her in the ascent of an old TV tower in the desert of the American southwest.
Becky naturally objects, but then of course does do it, and after a little scene-setting during which we’re introduced to some ominous vultures, the pair are making their way up the rickety, rusty steel to the top of the tower. Not long after they’ve reached the summit, a large section of ladder breaks away, cutting off their descent route; they don’t have anything like enough rope to compensate, nor are their phones getting any signal, and they only brought up a little water and a few other items.
So there’s certainly a potentially fascinating puzzle in Fall, especially given the audience’s expectation that they will get back to solid ground, and not simply fall to their deaths or die of thirst. Those might be the realistic outcomes, but of course movies of this kind aren’t supposed to be wholly natural.
Yet they are supposed to make internal sense. The things the characters do should be what a reasonable person might do in those circumstances, and their outcomes should be what you might expect actually to happen—and Fall fails more than once at both.
While some of Becky and Hunter’s attempts to attract help are indeed ingenious (without being over-contrived) and depicted in careful, mostly convincing detail, other aspects of the dilemma are much more questionable. Most obviously, they don’t tell anyone where they’re going, yet they are surely not foolhardy idiots: they are experienced climbers, accustomed to careful preparation.
Then there’s a bid for rescue that fails in a way so unlikely it stretches credibility; a more prosaic foul-up would have been less jarring. And then there is the problem that, despite having many hours to ponder every detail of their situation, neither of them notices the powerful means of attracting attention which lies mere feet away from them for the entire period. Not to give too much away, let’s say that Becky and Hunter are in dire need of a lightbulb moment.
Both actors bring their rather thin characters to life, though that doesn’t always aid the film’s cause, either. Many will find Hunter, the social-media queen, singularly annoying and harbour secret hopes that she might make a misstep on the edge of the platform. (It’s interesting that none of her thousands of online followers seems to have been worried enough by the abrupt stop to her videos to raise the alarm.)
On the plus side, many individual scenes are nail-bitingly well done (especially, perhaps, for viewers like me who would’ve started to feel uncontrollably nervous at rung 15); and the cinematography by MacGregor is often first-rate, enhanced by the bleak landscape and the almost hostile strangeness of the tower structure rising so incongruously from it. The final, desperate attempt to raise help does have a shockingly grim aspect which grabs attention by virtue of its sheer unexpectedness, too.
But there are too many questions over Fall’s plausibility for it to work entirely as intended. And the damp squib of an ending–not to mention the disappointing resort at one point to it-was-all-a-dream—reinforces an impression this movie relies too much on its high concept without satisfactorily working out where to go with it, in a sub-genre where the precise implications of every little detail are all-important.
USA | 2022 | 107 MINUTES | 2.76:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
director: Scott Mann.
writers: Jonathan Frank & Scott Mann.
starring: Grace Caroline Currey, Virginia Gardner & Jeffrey Dean Morgan.