A few decades ago, anyone buying a ticket to a film about a priest would assume it to be a heartwarming tale about the power of faith. These days, you’ve got to assume that it’s a gut-wrenching tragedy about molestation. Funny how time changes things.
Terrance Odette’s ‘Fall’ stars the great Michael Murphy (‘Tanner 88’) as the priest in question. As with all of Murphy’s roles, the character initially appears to be a kind liberal gentleman, but there are some nagging doubts below the surface. We follow him around in his daily routines. He seems popular in the community and friendly with his family. Then he gets a letter that instantly puts him into a funk. He seems troubled as a young couple asks to be wed in his church and immediately arranges plans out of town. At first, it seems as though he’s planning to visit his family. Then he drives by the address that the letter came from, but can’t enter. Eventually, he returns to the house and even goes in. You can probably assume what the letter was about. It’s an incident from his past come back to haunt him, from a boy grown into a man who can’t forget a certain weekend in a cabin with his favorite priest.
It’s safe to say that ‘Fall’ isn’t exactly the most pleasant movie ever conceived. It can be a deeply painful watch, yet thankfully a rewarding one. Writer/director Odette didn’t conceive his movie for controversy or shock value. He’s far too compassionate a filmmaker for that. No, he makes us live with and grow to admire Murphy’s character before diving into the darkness, and his film is all the more powerful for it.
Some subplots and side characters swirl around Murphy. The tales are all linked by sin, and they all face Murphy’s compassionate judgment. As for the priest’s judgment, that’s left up to the audience and it’s a tricky question. Can someone overcome a dark past and become the person he wishes he was? Or can you never escape what you’ve done? Thankfully, Odette isn’t the type of filmmaker to answer such a question overtly, and there’s something deeply haunting about how open he leaves the film to his audience.
Much of the success of the project comes down to Murphy, a longtime brilliant character actor who has graced such diverse titles as ‘Manhattan’, ‘Magnolia’, ‘Batman Returns’ and a huge chuck of Robert Altman’s filmography. Murphy is a model of understatement. His performances might even seem a little bland in passing, but he’s always in control and delivers a character who reveals much more than he ever says. In ‘Fall’, Murphy gives a stellar performance in one of the few lead roles of his career. It would have been easy to overplay this part or inadvertently pass judgment on the character. Thankfully, Murphy is incapable of such things and delivers a subtle performance that’s deeply tragic in its silences.
The film has other strong performances around him (especially from the brilliant Suzanne Clement, who almost steals the whole movie away in a single searing scene at the center), but this is very much the Michael Murphy show and it’s wonderful to see the accomplished actor get a lead role this good so late in his career.
As impressive as ‘Fall’ can be, it’s hardly perfect. The deliberate and secretive pace that Odette employs can frequently cross the line between mysteriously slow and irritatingly slow. The subject matter is also quite familiar and Odette adds little more than ambiguity to movies that have tackled the material before. Perhaps worst of all, the film faces unavoidable comparisons to John Michael McDonagh’s bleak comedy ‘Calvary‘, given that both were released this year and deal with strikingly similar themes and characters. ‘Fall’ pales in comparison to McDonagh’s brilliant little gem, but it’s still an interesting character study in its own right.
Thanks to a stirring central performance from Michael Murphy and a compassionately opaque script from Terrance Odette, ‘Fall’ is an intriguing spin on familiar themes, and that’s a far more difficult trick to pull off than it seems.