Killtoberfest movie #2 was Fallen, a moody, religion-infused noir starring Denzel back when he tried. I’ve seen it before (having discovered it on TNT, where it plays every so often), and was showing it to a couple of friends.
We open with an execution, as a vile killer is led into the gas chamber. (The killer, Reese, is played by Elias Koteas with the mad energy of JGL in Don Jon–it’s a key scene because he has to set the tone for a dozen other actors going forward.) I’m not very familiar with gas chamber execution machinery (I guess I assumed it got pumped into the room via pipes), but here they seem to drop one chemical into another under the condemned’s chair, leading to the striking image I’ve posted here. Smoke in the film represents death, the symbol bracketing the film between this opening and a climactic cigarette. (Fitting for a noir-inspired movie, isn’t it?) Smoke is formless, shapeless… and toxic. It symbolizes the dangers of the ethereal, both imagined and otherwise, in a movie that quietly argues for the beauty and sanctity of physical, tactile life.
The movie is fascinating and entertaining for a number of reasons. It’s generally well-executed, conceived and shot with that sort of “inspired by a graphic novel” precision of vision, without being overly flashy. It’s a very well-polished script, built in scenes and around dialogue, with even incidental moments contributing to the whole. The film also has a bang-up cast, including supporting roles for John Goodman, Donald Sutherland, and James Gandolfini. It does some very interesting things with its mythology, too, particularly the low-key way it uses the woman’s background–a far cry from the shrillness of, say, Constantine. It’s not as good as Fincher’s Se7en, but it does share the same quality of starting with a ridiculous, pulpy premise and treating it seriously enough that it really works. The old rule of thumb is that a great movie has three great scenes and no bad ones. Fallen has two great scenes, four or five really good ones, and no bad ones. That’s not nothing.
Most of all what it has is atmosphere. I mentioned “tactile life” above for a reason; you feel like you can reach out and touch this film, because it’s so well-drawn and restrained. All of the cop patter is clever and feels good without feeling like it’s hardboiled “movie cop” talk or on the other hand trying to hard to be gritty and realistic. You simply feel like you’re hanging out with them. The same goes for the scenes of Denzel with his family. Everything is shaded in, given texture. Denzel’s contemplative narration helps to set the tone, and combined with his performance gives us the picture of a Good Man (or a Good Cop) saved from how boring that stereotype can be by hints of deep emotion in his bedrock. He spends almost all of the film restrained, keeping his emotions under wraps–not cold, but not overreacting. Speaking to Reese before the man is executed, for instance, he doesn’t rage at or insult a man he surely despises, but simply makes a few remarks showing how glad he’ll be to see the execution carried out.
Ostensibly the film is about good and evil, fate and destiny, and all that. But really it ends up being about the conversation you have with yourself, asking whether or not you’ve chosen a life of value. The villain of the piece has had a long time to do something constructive, but chooses to destroy and ruin other people. Denzel’s character begins the film with faith in his role as a police officer, but as that is stripped away he discovers that the drive to protect others and punish evil doesn’t come from the badge. Between them on the scale is Greta Milano, who comes to realize that her fear has led to a life of inaction. Doing something–doing the right thing–requires courage and sacrifice. Sometimes that’s enough. Sometimes it’s not. But you do it anyway.
Note: I’m posting the trailer here in case you’re not convinced you should see this, and because I’m putting in trailers for all of these. But damn if this isn’t a terrible trailer that gives away almost the whole movie. I don’t even think you should know the premise before you see the movie, because it’s a joy to see it unfold. So, uh, don’t watch this video.