Evil is everywhere, and in everybody. That is never truer than in this film. I saw Fallen in its original theatrical run fourteen years ago. I loved it then, and I still love it today. I owned in on VHS, and later, it was one of the earliest DVDs I saw. At the time of release, I stated it was one of the best suspense thrillers I had seen. Now, even after being exposed to a wider array of films in that genre, this still holds up strongly for me. The supernatural twist surely adds to that. Fallen really is an inspired film of its genre that is gripping and engaging on multiple levels from the awesome beginning to the masterful ending.
Detective John Hobbes (Denzel Washington) has already arrested serial killer Edgar Reese (Elias Koteas). He’s been convicted, and is now awaiting his execution in the gas chamber. Although, for a man facing his inevitable and imminent death he’s remarkably upbeat. Is he psychotic or is he something else? Hobbes witnesses the execution, and sees Reese die in the chamber. The case is closed, and it’s on with life. That is until a new series of murders arise which eerily share characteristics with those of Reese’s, but Reese is dead – isn’t he? An ancient, unseen evil known as Azazel took control over the man known as Edgar Reese a long time ago, but where Reese died, it endured. Now, it’s set its sights on Hobbes to enact revenge on him. Hobbes’ partner Jonesy (John Goodman) is naturally creeped out over the apparent links between these latest murders and those Reese committed, and their commanding officer – Lieutenant Stanton (Donald Sutherland) – is very shady, eluding to knowing a lot more than he’s willing to divulge. Hobbes attempts to solve the puzzle of why there is a space between “Lyons and Spakowski” that Reese left for him – before and after his death. This clue leads Hobbes to the death of a police officer who is survived by his daughter Gretta Milano (Embeth Davidtz) who becomes Hobbes’ path to answers that he is not easily willing to accept. What this mystery drags Hobbes into is a dark and dangerous reality which may only end up in death for all those who stand between this fallen angel turn demonic spirit and John Hobbes.
Denzel Washington – as always – delivers a powerful and solid performance. His character of John Hobbes is very human with a wide range of emotions, but most importantly, he’s loyal and dedicated to those he trusts and cares for. In the start of the film, Hobbes is depicted as a solid professional and a confident detective. He’s no glory hound with the media – he’s just a cop with a job to be done, and is glad that Reese has been brought to justice. As the story becomes stranger and more unreal, Hobbes slowly unravels the mystery with great skill. Denzel carries the film with ease. He handles the subject matter in a very grounded way making it all relatable through his usual charm, heart, and humanity.
This brings us to Elias Koteas who, despite his relatively short screentime, retains the biggest impact of the entire film. He makes every second of his time on screen count. Elias put a lot of hard, hard work into this performance so that it would stay with an audience throughout the length of the film. I’ve seen Elias in many different roles, the first of which was as the crime-fighting Casey Jones in the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles live-action movie, and later, among the powerhouse cast in The Prophecy. No matter the film, whatever role he takes on, he makes it memorable. This one is no exception. Reese comes off as a very haunting and disturbing individual without rolling into Hannibal Lecter territory. Koteas brings an intelligence to the role that is hidden under layers of charisma, riddles, and supposed psychotic behavior. He entirely grasped the intent of the character in the story, and the depth of this evil entity.
Next, you’ve got John Goodman as the warm-hearted and emotionally supportive Jonesy. Goodman always amazes me with his natural talent. He can go from comedic and humorous to intense and dramatic at a moment’s notice. I thoroughly enjoyed his work on Roseanne as well as other movie roles, and in this film, he really puts it all out there. I don’t want to drop any major spoilers, but his performance at the film’s end is just everything he could ever pour into a performance and then some. Donald Sutherland does fine work – as always. His Lieutenant Stanton really offers a stricter and secretive counterweight to the more open relationship between Hobbes and Jonesy. He puts Hobbes at unease as he delves into this unsettling mystery. There’s also a smaller supporting role with James Gandolfini as a fellow Detective with a unique personae and attitude. Of course, he pulls it off with much charisma and energy that adds to the colorful nature of the cast.
How the supernatural aspects are handled add to the class and sophistication of this film. Fallen angles who were deprived of form that have lived on through the centuries possessing humans could have faltered if presented in the wrong way. Embeth Davidtz was given the task of conveying this exposition, and she hit it perfectly on target. As Gretta Milano, she offers up a strong, yet compassionate performance with a confident core set of beliefs that keep the film grounded, but allow for Hobbes and the audience to believe in there being something more out there. Something beyond what we can see that is still a very powerful threat. The film is set in Hobbes’ world of procedural police work where there is a simple explanation and tangible evidence. Gretta slowly convinces Hobbes to look beyond the obvious and open up his mind to the supernatural truth. Davidtz strikes up a good chemistry with Denzel that allows for a sense of trust to build between their characters. This, along with Davidtz’s strength of character, allows Hobbes and the audience to embrace the reality of Azazel.
Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography on this film is filled with fantastic depth and color temperature contrast. I still remember when I first watched this on DVD, and was highly captivated by the vibrant visual quality of the film. It is beautiful while remaining moody. The autumn setting is captured with gorgeous artistry. It is my favorite season of the year much due to how wonderfully colorful it becomes. They don’t just have it there because that’s the time of year they shot film, they make it an overall part of the film’s tone and color scheme. The “demon vision” look is effectively creepy and otherworldly. The score further adds to the haunting, mysterious atmosphere of the film. Of course, the use of the Rolling Stones’ “Time is On My Side” was terrific and inspired. A great choice that fits the manic and peculiar sense of humor of Edgar Reese. The song is constantly sung by those possessed by Azazel throughout the film as a sort of playful tease from the demon to Hobbes. Of course, John Goodman puts in the best performance while mimicking some moves of Mick Jagger.
This all adds up to an exceptionally effective thriller. The suspense of the feature is very taut creating a haunting sense where, eventually, John Hobbes becomes deeply unsettled by. Being stalked by a supernatural killer that is generally intangible who can transfer itself from one person to another with a simple touch was brilliant. There is a chase scene with Gretta Milano which uses this one concept to great effect. The misdirection of the film is also ingenious, and the bookend scenes happen to be a storytelling method I’ve come to use in many of own independent films. This story is all told from a certain perspective that you will not put into alignment until the end. Denzel’s voice overs are excellently handled to be both ambiguous as to the truth the first time around, but also, be entirely perfect on repeat viewings fitting into what you already know. This is mainly a testament to the screenplay of Nicholas Kazan, and the direction of Gregory Hoblit. Voice overs can tend to be a little dry without the proper direction and context given to the actor. Denzel gives them the right tone which feeds into the detective noir investigative aspect of the story, and ultimately, as something much more.
Kazan’s screenplay alone seems excellent. The concepts and how they are handled are done with a fine depth of intelligence and emotional poignancy. The philosophical discussions amongst these characters show exceptional attention to well developed characters, relationships, and storytelling detail. The actors inhabit those roles, along with all their beliefs and attitudes, perfectly. These are essential elements to explore for John Hobbes to develop through the film. He doesn’t give into wild paranoia, but more of a cautious, weary mindset that drives him to a very clear perspective. Azazel’s actions throughout the film makes Hobbes a man with his back against the wall, but he doesn’t flinch or become desperate. He gets smart, and decides upon a course of action that is quite cunning and smart. That’s very telling of the film. There’s nothing cheap or dumb about it. Everyone involved works towards creating a very smart film that maintains a sense of humanity.
Checking wikipedia for some credits on the film, I see there were many mixed reviews of Fallen upon its initial release. There were critics describing it with words like “convoluted,” “far-fetched,” “recycled,” and “not very engaging.” As a friend of mine consistently remarks, what good are critics anyway? I can hardly understand where they come from myself most times. I personally believe too many have forgotten how to simply enjoy a film as a piece of art or entertainment instead of analyzing it like a science experiment. How they could not see the rich depth of this movie is beyond me. I find it entertaining on many levels with dimensional, enjoyable characters, incredible tension and suspense, a fine interwoven mystery, excellent performances all around, and clever storytelling. Again, I felt this way in 1998, and I feel the same now in 2012. I’m sure I will continue to feel that way forever. This partially follows in the mentality of 1990s crime films post-Se7en, but there’s so much more self-identity and humanity within this story that is not often found as much in this genre. Fallen is a definite must-see for anyone who enjoys suspenseful thrillers with supernatural elements. This is a highly satisfying, sophisticated thriller which receives my strongest endorsement!