Until Tarsem Singh's The Fall, that is, which will easily be considered the prettiest movie of 2008. Tarsem (he uses just his first name these days) previously directed The Cell, which, while resoundingly insipid in its plotting, was so thoughtful in its visual design that it was like watching a stupid thing that was also pretty. (Fill in your own simile; I'd suggest mixing the Bush administration's foreign policy with the rose gardens of heaven.)
But The Fall is not only attractive; it's smart and well-acted. The story starts with a cowboy falling off a bridge as he watches another man kiss his girl. The cowboy in question is stuntman Roy Walker (Lee Pace), and the other man is the lead actor in a film.
When the cowboy awakes, he's not a cowboy anymore; he's just an injured Hollywood bit player whose woman has left him for a more famous man. He's also paralyzed from the waist down, and deeply suicidal. But as he mopes in his Southern California hospital room sometime in the 1920s, a little girl named Alexandria with a broken arm wanders in. Seeing a chance to procure the means to kill himself, he entices her with a story, and asks her to steal for him a bottle of morphine.
Alexandria is played by Catinca Untaru, who, herself, is a little girl, and is thus appropriate for the part. But even more important, she's a stunningly good actress. She supposedly improvised a lot of her lines, which also makes her a screenwriter. Seeing as she was 8 years old when the film was made, that makes her the second-youngest screenwriter working in Hollywood. (Uwe Boll is technically older, but every year, he has the brain of a hyperactive 5-year-old boy transplanted into his bloated and aging corpse.)
The story that the injured Roy Walker tells is perfectly tuned; in itself, it's utterly incompetent, episodic and jumping around, featuring simplistic motivation and vast swathes of internal inconsistency. But it's a story that Walker is making up as he goes along, shaping it to the responses of his audience. It's the rare case of a story that makes more sense because it's being poorly told.
At first, Walker starts to tell Alexandria a story about Alexander the great. A gorgeous desert scene unfolds, with oddly armored men wandering about on orange sands. But then Walker decides not to tell that story, and switches to another, and the Alexander the Great story is completely dropped, never to reappear.
The second story is about five warriors who escape from a desert island on the back of an elephant, only to find a flaming mystic emerging from a burning tree. The imagery is so weird and inventive, it's like watching Salvador Dali dream.
The closest comparison would be to the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky (The Holy Mountain, El Topo) or Matthew Barney (Cremaster), except that Tarsem has made a film aimed at a much broader audience, a sort of art film for children. Tarsem has a real skill for sculpture, installation and performance. Great pillars rise out of the desert floor, hoisting a long white sheet that's stained red with blood at its base. A keyhole turns into a camera obscura, projecting a galloping horse on a white-washed wall. A horde of mud-covered monks dance, snake-like, out of the ground. And Charles Darwin walks about in a feathered jacket carrying a sack that contains a chimp.
But the visual riffs aren't the only clever bits. One of the five warriors is an explosives expert, but each time he's about to set off a bomb, the story is interrupted by Alexandria, who points out a narrative flaw, and the bomber must extinguish his fuse. Another warrior is rewritten halfway through the narrative, and a different actor must take his part. The ambiguity of the word "Indian" comes out when another warrior is described leaving a teepee in search of a squaw, but is seen in a turban wandering through a Taj Mahal-like palace.
The clever bits pile up but never overwhelm the film's emotional core. Walker is bent on self-destruction due to the loss of his girlfriend and mobility, while Alexandria's time in the hospital is like a vacation from her job as a migrant farm worker. And the story they both create means such deeply different things for each of them that it constantly falls apart.
Cinematographer Colin Watkinson and screenwriters Dan Gilroy and Nico Soultanakis, who, with Tarsem, adapted the script from the 1981 film Yo Ho Ho, deserve shared credit, but it's mostly Tarsem's vision that motivates this film. It's strange and childish in a good way, a sort of double fairytale for grown-ups. In its handling of both plot and design, The Fall is one of the most inventive films of the last few years.