FALLEN. Remain vigilant so that evil doesn’t touch you
Significant words, as it turns out. Soon after the criminal’s execution, people begin to die, killed in the same way Reese used to do it. Could he have an accomplice? Or is it a copycat imitating him? The first hour of Hoblit’s film resembles other 90s thrillers about elusive killers, starting with Se7en, both in terms of plot development, which relies on the police discovering increasingly terrifying leads, and the atmosphere foreshadowing that whatever awaits the characters at the end of their journey won’t be pleasant.
But there’s also an eerie feeling associated with Hobbes’ investigation, a hard-to-define fantastical element. The distortion of the image when we see reality from Reese’s perspective can be explained by his deranged mind, but how do we explain the moment of the killer’s death when the subjective viewpoint hovers over the body and moves towards another person? Shortly after, Newton Thomas Sigel’s camera (known for The Usual Suspects and Drive) observes a gathering of people in the evening, shifting its focus from one person to another as they pass by, specifically when they touch ever so gently. Both of these scenes lead us to believe that whatever resided in the criminal has been set free after his death, and it’s transmitted through touch. However, it takes a good hour into the film before the director confirms our suspicions – Detective Hobbes is not dealing with a human but a fallen angel, now a demon, who has decided to play at the expense of the policeman.
Denzel Washington plays this role, and he handles himself quite well in the horror genre, even though his character is essentially a rerun. In Russell Mulcahy’s Ricochet, he played a cop, and then in The Bone Collector, he portrayed a deputy prosecutor targeted by a psychopathic criminal who, after escaping from prison, frames the protagonist for numerous crimes. A similar situation unfolds here, but Nicholas Kazan’s screenplay is at its best when it departs from the typical thriller formula in favor of horror (which is probably why the first half of the film is weaker than the second). Fallen is a horror that avoids violent use of music or jump scares but instead focuses on an ever-growing conviction that humans are powerless in the face of evil, which can touch anyone. This metaphorical statement is beautifully illustrated in the scenes where unsuspecting people become carriers of the demon, which swiftly jumps from one body to another. We fear how easily our will can be taken from us, how simple it is to surrender to the evil force that may have been within us all along.
In his previous film, Primal Fear, Hoblit also raised the question of the permission we give to evil to control our actions. The surprising ending of that thriller somewhat diminished the weight of those considerations, and Fallen doesn’t shy away from covering existential questions with the cloak of mainstream cinema. The director believes that the concept and the evocative visual atmosphere will speak for themselves; perhaps that’s why he favors the pessimistic atmosphere over a lively narrative. He also devotes too much space to his favorite observations about the police, often in uncinematic situations (Hoblit became famous for directing groundbreaking TV series like Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue), trying to enrich the early part of the film with a credible portrayal of Washington’s character and those played by John Goodman, James Gandolfini, and Donald Sutherland. All three seem to have relatively small roles but manage to shine in at least one scene – Goodman has little to do until the end, suppressing the energy and humor he’s known for. The late Gandolfini enjoys himself much more in the role of a straightforward and somewhat brash cop, and Sutherland gives his captain enough sinister charm that you can’t trust him even when the script doesn’t ask for it. Embeth Davidtz also appears as the only woman in this male-dominated group, portraying a religious scholar who explains to Hobbes what he’s up against.
Elias Koteas remains the standout, appearing only in the prologue as the convict Reese, flawlessly setting up the entire film with his spectacular performance. The way his character behaves before the execution, his ability to speak many languages, or even singing The Rolling Stones’ Time Is On My Side (which becomes a leitmotif of the film) immediately makes us suspect his inhuman nature. Koteas had previously appeared in another “angelic” film, The Prophecy, where he was pursued by the archangel Gabriel, played by Christopher Walken.
However, Fallen is closer in spirit to Alan Parker’s Angel Heart, especially when it comes to angels. In both films, a detective story turns into horror when the characters discover the true nature of their investigation. Parker’s film has a more resonant sense of the tragedy of being unable to escape one’s fate. Still, Hoblit also rejects any notion of victory, even a partial one. He urges us to remain vigilant so that evil doesn’t touch us at the least expected moment. You might laugh at such a literal conclusion, but the strength of Fallen lies in its deadly seriousness, the grim tone of the narrative, and a constant sense of danger. It all strangely fits the television screen, an image confined to a small, tight box, rather than allowing it to breathe on the big cinematic screen.