Fallen Review

by "Nathaniel R. Atcheson" (nate AT pyramid DOT net)
January 19th, 1998

Fallen (1998)

Director: Gregory Hoblit
Cast: Denzel Washington, Donald Sutherland, John Goodman, Embeth Davidtz, Elias Koteas, James Gandolfini
Rated R: violence, language

by Nathaniel R. Atcheson ([email protected])

    I've got to give the makers of Fallen credit for trying something high-minded and going through with it for the most part. The film is composed of appealing ideas and characters, and often times it even works, but after hearing about this story, I would have handled the execution completely differently. This could have been a deeply disturbing film, moving and profound on multiple levels. Too bad, because it waters down its own dark themes, and shifts with unnatural tonal changes. The result is an original, well-acted film that tiptoes around greatness and ends up falling far short of the mark.

    Denzel Washington stars as John Hobbes, the New York detective who narrates the story. In the beginning, we find that he has just put away serial killer Edgar Reese (Elias Koteas in a brief but energetic performance). It doesn't take long for Hobbes to find out that the spirit of the killer is being passed around from body to body by means of touch--in one frantic sequence, he watches on the street as each passerby stares him in the eye with a demonic grin. He enlists the help of theologian Gretta Milano (Embeth Davidtz); as it turns out, her father went through the exact same situation that Hobbes is going through at the time of the film.

    Fallen is a strange case. I immediately knew there was something wrong when the lively '60s tune Time is on My Side (I think that's what it's called...) began blaring during the credits. Credits, for me, set the tone of the film, and this is not what I'd expect from a film called Fallen about serial killers and spirits gone awry. This isn't a severe misstep, however--the narration is a far bigger problem. Washington is a terrific actor, and this is a great performance, but his voice is just not good for narration. He sounds too happy, too nice for it to be a foreboding element. It's not really comical, but with his voice in there all along, there isn't really any doubt that he's going to be okay. In that case, a central element of suspense in the film is lost.

    This leads right into another striking problem with the film--it isn't scary enough. This is a story that sent a tingle down my spine when I saw the preview. The ideas here have so much promise--just the thought of a killer who can pass from person to person so easily is utterly unnerving. The execution, though, could have been so much more eerie. It's creepy just in nature, but it could have been downright out of control. The director, Gregory Hoblit, is not entirely to blame for this: I think the fatal error here is the fact that the audience knows what's going on far too early--this is dramatic irony at its most extreme. We get to find out what's going on just from seeing the trailer, but Hobbes doesn't get in on the secret until halfway through the film.

    With the central idea behind the film let out so early, it's truly hard to be afraid of it. Another big mistake is the usage of first-person from the eyes of the spirit. There is something about seeing what it sees that totally eliminates all suspense from the situation. There is one truly breathtaking moment, involving the basement of a lonely cabin and a lot of spider webs, but most of the film lacks this kind of intense uncertainty.

    Still, there is a lot to like about this film. The performances, for one, are all great. Washington is always convincing as the cop who is seemingly at the center of this supernatural joke. John Goodman, who plays Hobbes' partner, manages to create an interesting character in the limited screen time he's given, and Donald Sutherland is good as always as Hobbes' boss. I also liked Davidtz--she displayed the same kind of strength that she did as Helen Hirsch in Schindler's List.

    It's a decent film, but you'll know when you watch it that it's been tested and toned down from what it was originally supposed to be. The ending, too, feels like a major cheat. The ideas behind this film are superb--highly imaginative and ultimately convincing. As far as the execution is from what I wanted, the film still engaged me. I liked the characters enough, and the situation is extremely interesting.
    It's pretty rare that films take on this religious, demonic tone. Last year I went into The Devil's Advocate not expecting much, and I got a forceful, extremely moving and often disturbing picture. Fallen promises as much but didn't deliver--this film should have been directed by David Fincher. Had it been darker and more ominous, Fallen would have been a truly great film. It takes the easier path, though, and ends up just making you wish that someone in the production had thought that we could have handled something more hard-hitting.

>From 0-10: 6
Grade: C+


    Nathaniel R. Atcheson

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