If Richard Dutcher's latest film Falling ever sees the light of day in the form of a limited theatrical release, which seems debatable at this point, it will certainly alienate the last of his mainstream LDS fan base. Though the comments from the audience during the Q&A discussion following the private screening rang fairly universal in its tone of praise, the reaction of the twenty-some-odd people I talked to about the film in the hours and days that followed ranged from sad disappointment to outright hate. (And 'twenty' may be an understatement?¢Ç¨ÄùI probably spent 4-5 hours discussing the merits and demerits of Falling over the long Sunstone weekend… it is that kind of film.) If Dutcher is ever going to play to a 'home court' crowd, the Sunstone Symposium is it. So the Sunstone crowd's mixed (at best) reaction doesn't bode well for the reaction of the more mainstream and conservative LDS audience. How a non-LDS audience will react I'm less certain, though like any visually and thematically demanding film (think Breaking the Waves, or Monster, or Monster's Ball) such an audience will always be limited.
This would be a shame, however, because Falling has much to recommend. For one thing, Falling features Dutcher's finest performance as an actor. Second, Dutcher's historical ability to coax strong performances from the rest of the cast is once again on display here, especially evident in the performance of the remarkable Virginia Reece as Davey Boyle, Dutcher's on-screen wife. (Reece's credits to date are sparse, but her talent is undeniable. If Falling falls into the right hands, it could prove to be her big break.) Finally, but with some reservations (more on this later), the story, though difficult and bleak, is engrossing and relevant, and is edited with well-paced purpose.
—SPOILER WARNING—In Falling, Dutcher plays Eric Boyle, a 'stringer' by day to pay the bills, and an aspiring filmmaker during his off hours. Though he appears to be blessed with a loving marriage to his non-religious wife Davey, Eric Boyle feels like he is gradually falling, (both professionally and personally), further and further away from the youthful, idealistic dreams he held for himself as a Mormon Missionary. Boyle's perceived fall is gradual until a horrific, fateful decision?¢Ç¨ÄùBoyle films the murder of a helpless man by ruthless gang members instead of extending (or calling for) help?¢Ç¨Äùaccelerates his fall like the push of a fast-forward button. Meanwhile, Davey Boyle, an aspiring actress, wrestles with her own inner demons: what price is she willing to pay for success?
So why does Falling ultimately fail, and why will it fail with a wider Mormon audience? I have three or four minor problems with the film that, in the interest of space and time will not discuss here, but will instead focus on what I believe are the film's two major problems:
The first problem with Falling is the much-discussed violence. Though the film is violent throughout, the final act contains a violent sequence so gratuitous and unnecessary, that the film jumps right off the tracks. I say this not because I am squeamish or prudish about violence?¢Ç¨ÄùI've seen worse?¢Ç¨Äùbut because it doesn't make sense cinematically. Just as Dallas Robbins explained in his review of Falling, this scene went on for so long, and was so graphic, it actually made me laugh. This is too bad, because Dutcher had worked so hard to hook me into the narrative, line and sinker. But by the 60 or 70 second mark of the scene, I was no longer watching a gripping story, but watching a director showing off. This was the basketball equivalent of LeBron James doing a ball-off-the-backboard-combo-360-degree-body-spin dunk on a breakaway. And flubbing it. In the 4th quarter. Of a pivotal playoff game.
Was the fight scene impressive? Yes, from a technical standpoint, the scene was very impressive. In the Q&A session that followed the screening, Dutcher, grinning with devilish satisfaction, was clearly excited about his cinematic accomplishment. The scene took four days to shoot, and both Dutcher and his sparring partner suffered broken ribs and fingers. Dutcher explained that he wanted to depict a 'real' fight scene, not the stylistic nonsense favored by Hollywood. So he depicted the physical pain and terror that accompanies such violence and edited the scene together without a score. As such, I imagine he will be loathe to cut even one second off his baby.
I don't disagree with Dutcher's decision to go for visceral broke; it's the degree and amount of violence that is the problem. Do we need to see a brick smash into another man's face, not once, not twice, but eight different times? The problem is that this scene is about the fight, not the story. Dutcher should edit it down and save the extended fight scene for the DVD extras, complete a director’s commentary track where Dutcher can explain in loving detail each choreographed punch and spurt of blood. 🙂
One more thought: Dutcher's over-the-top decision in this final scene is curious for two reasons:
First, in an earlier, unsettling scene featuring Eric Boyle's wife, Davey, Dutcher shows surprising restraint, which actually amplifies the feeling of violence. In this earlier scene, Davey is asked to disrobe in front of three leering men for a part in a movie. The scene is long and emotionally disturbing and draining as we see Davey disrobe to her underwear. Though she strips naked, Dutcher stops just short of showing any actual nudity, choosing instead to depict the violence of the act through the look of despair in Davey's eyes and the look of cool, lecherous detachment in the eyes of the three men. I have nothing against screen nudity, but Dutcher makes a wise decision here. Had he shown nudity, I'm afraid the act may have been too violent, and/or the scene would have become about the nudity, and not about the story. As such, Dutcher's decision to do the opposite?¢Ç¨Äùshow every last punch and stab and kick and shot?¢Ç¨Äùin the final scene feels incongruent.
Second, another early scene features Dutcher's character, Eric Boyle, visiting a movie producer, who chides Boyle that he needs to go over-the-top and depict the 'marrow of the bone' if he wants to attract any notice. Boyle begrudgingly agrees to try, but the clear moral communicated by Dutcher (the writer/director) in this conversation is that such 'marrow' is not about telling real stories, but about showing marrow, about graphic, boundary-pushing titillation or horror. In other words, the film exists as an excuse to depict the marrow, instead of the other way around. So when Dutcher (the writer/director, not his movie character) violates his movie's own moral message in the last act of Falling, it feels illogical and wrong.
Well, I've rambled on long enough so I'll stop short of discussing my other issue. (Note: I later explain my other issue in Comment #1 of Stephen Carter’s blog post.) As I explained above, there is a lot to like about this film. Dutcher engaged me in the storyline and characters from the opening scene. And certainly, any film that instigates so much discussion (and not just about the violence, the message is just as controversial) merits consideration as a piece of art. Nobody discusses crap.
I believe the above problem can be fixed in the editing room if Dutcher were so inclined. As I explained, he has some excellent material to work with. But this is simply my opinion. Dutcher no doubt has his artistic justifications for leaving the scene as is. And others no doubt agree with him. I'd love to hear your opinion. For those present at the private screening, what did you think?