From a High Place: Jonathan Glazer’s ‘The Fall’

A masked man clings to the trunk of a slender tree. Below, a mob gathers to shake him loose, their own masks almost lifelike in the pale light that falls through the canopy. Jonathan Glazer’s short film The Fall revolves around just a handful of these tableaux. The treed man. A rope slithering over a gallows. The man bracing himself against the walls of a bottomless stone shaft cut into the earth. All three scenes are shot primarily from below, the effect of looking up at objects in tenuous, delicate motion a sense of nail-biting vertigo.

The treed man sways, hanging on for dear life. The friction of the rope passing over the gallows threatens to snap its yardarm, the tension of the piece of lumber’s slow disintegration almost surgically conjoined with Mica Levi’s enigmatic score, less music than Foley work for sounds that have never been made. The man creeps up the shaft with agonizing slowness, back braced against the stone, fumbling for toeholds in the gloom. Anxiety and exhaustion coil around every frame of the six-minute film. That the crisis at its heart is amorphous, its participants literally faceless, only makes that anxiety harder to grasp and to reason with.

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Passing Sentence

When the masked mob catch their quarry they pause before bringing him to the shaft to be fitted with a noose and dropped into the dark. One snaps a quick cell phone picture of the others with their captive. We see it briefly: smeared faces, bodies washed in the dirty light of the camera’s flash. A crude record of justice being meted out? A badge for the attendees to display, associating themselves with the event of their prisoner’s punishment? It feels like one of the sordid Polaroids of guards posing with tortured prisoners that came out of Guantanamo Bay in the mid-2000s. 

The execution itself, if that’s what it is, is almost an afterthought. The victim is not hanged but dropped into a pit with no visible bottom. His executioners lose interest as soon as he’s out of sight. That he arrests his fall and sheds his noose feels less like an unbelievable twist than it does an outcome no one cared enough to think about or prevent.

The Fall portrays justice as a pageant only tenuously connected to its outcome. The inciting incident itself is missing, the cause for the captive’s ritual plunge left blank. Is he a scapegoat meant to purge the tensions of the masked people? Has he transgressed against them? Whatever the reason, he is punished at least as much for form as function, his slow crawl back toward the surface ignored by torturers with no interest in the world shaped by their orgiastic acts of violence.

Readers in the U.S. can watch The Fall online for free.