High and Low

Jonathan Glazer's THE FALL (2020)

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Since making his debut with the salty and sweaty gangster film Sexy Beast (2000), Jonathan Glazer has only completed two other narrative features - the beguiling chamber mystery Birth (2004) starring a never-been-better Nicole Kidman, and an arty, riveting Sci-fi saga entitled Under the Skin (2013) in which Scarlett Johannson plays an intergalactic black widow.

All three projects strip away the gloss of classic Hollywood genres to reveal a legacy of decay, isolation, and alienation that’s long bubbled under the surface of pop cinema. The trio also proves that the British director, whose other well-known projects include music videos for Radiohead, Massive Attack, Blur, Nick Cave, and of course, Jamiroquai’s Virtual Insanity, can operate within very different tonal registers (comedy, melodrama, thriller, etc) depending on the project. Still, each of his films establishes a rigorously formal sense of escalating tension that, when prolonged over an extended period of time, feels singularly immersive and experiential.

This is just my long way of saying that any new Glazer film is a cause for celebration. With his next feature (a Holocaust drama reportedly) still without a firm release date, we’ll have to settle for his latest short as an appetizer. It’s a sharp cinematic barb entitled The Fall (now streaming on Mubi) which portrays the kind of sudden mob mentality and anonymous aggression that’s perfectly suited for our cooped up times. As small pockets of unthinking, angry virus deniers refuse to wear face coverings during our current reality horror show, Glazer’s collective of chest-thumping goons all don masks seemingly co-opted from the nightmares of Japanese Noh Theater.

Set in a haunting forest grove that Lars von Trier would probably find homey, The Fall begins with the aforementioned anonymous brutes violently shaking the trunk of a tree. One of their own has scurried to the top and is now holding on for dear life. We’ll never know why this particular soul has been singled out, but when has fascism ever needed a reason to rationalize acts of indiscriminate terror?

Eventually, what goes up must come down (and later vice versa). When the frightened prey finally careens back down to earth, he’s immediately swarmed by the screaming horde. They document the moment with flash photography, creating a frozen image in time that was always destined to be the film’s main publicity still. Seconds later, we hear the familiar chime of a text message being sent, most disquieting when you realize this is the lone audible connection to our present, and possibly an indication of a larger, coordinated horror network in communication with each other.

A hangman’s noose is placed around the prisoner’s neck, and his descent continues, offscreen in fact for nearly 90 seconds. Meanwhile, the camera slowly pushes toward a makeshift gallows where a rapidly descending rope moves so fast that smoke begins to rise from the supporting wood planks. Glazer holds this long shot until the audience is firmly tucked under its focal point, then cuts to the opposite reverse shot of the bottomless hole below. All as Mica Levi’s tambourine, drum-heavy score unpredictably bludgeons from the heavens. It’s wonderful to see a modern film so thoroughly constructed around extreme high and low angles.

I won’t say if or when the rope ever stops falling; that’s for you to find out. But sidestepping narrative specifics for a second, it’s fascinating to consider the cynical thematic implications of The Fall’s surprise ending. Even if by some miracle our resilience and strength allow us to survive atrocity, we’re probably only destined to get thrown back down another endless black hole by the powers that be.

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Where to Watch

The Fall will be streaming on Mubi for 24 more days.

Under the Skin is available to stream via Netflix.

Sexy Beast can be rented through Amazon VOD.

Birth can be rented through iTunes VOD (for only $0.99!)

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Until next time,

GHJ